Innerviews, music without borders

Porcupine Tree
Collective Action
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2022 Anil Prasad.

Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson Richard Barbieri Gavin HarrisonPorcupine Tree, 2022: Gavin Harrison, Steven Wilson, and Richard Barbieri | Photo: Alex Lake

Porcupine Tree’s emergence after 12 years of invisibility from public view is more reboot than reunion. There’s no phoenix story here. The revered expansive British rock group simply quietly receded into the background in 2010 without any fire or fury. However, the 2022 trio version of the band, featuring multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Steven Wilson, keyboardist Richard Barbieri, and drummer Gavin Harrison, continued working on and off during the intervening years on new music, as well as occasionally socializing.

The result of those efforts is the new album Closure/Continuation. It’s a seven-track track tour-de-force of mercurial compositions and incendiary lyrics. Its songs reflect current sociopolitical challenges, existential concerns, superficial subjectivity, and supernatural intrigue. There’s nothing even remotely aimed at any pop chart jugular. In fact, that resolute insistence was one of the motivating factors for reactivating the band.

The album also reflects the varied experiences the trio pursued during the hiatus. Wilson, the group’s founding member, launched and grew a successful solo career that explored vast territory, including art rock, ambitious pop, electronica, dance, ambient, and noise music. Barbieri also focused on solo output, combining sound design, analog synthesizers, and acoustic instruments to impressive effect. Harrison was more band-focused, recording and touring extensively with King Crimson and The Pineapple Thief. He also released a big band reimagining of Porcupine Tree’s output on his 2014 solo release Cheating the Polygraph.

All of that combined to create a significantly-evolved version of Porcupine Tree. Listeners will hear influences from across the trio’s endeavors outside of the band in the new music. Notably, the majority of the pieces were co-written from the ground up. Historically, Wilson would deliver comprehensive demos in advance of recording, and then solicit band input. The COVID-19 pandemic also took all the musicians off the road, providing additional time and space to bring the album to fruition.

Another change in the music is that Wilson plays bass guitar throughout, with many of the songs begnning life from his work on the instrument. The group cites it as a core reason for why bassist Colin Edwin, who was part of the quartet edition of the band from 1993-2010, isn't part of this formation.

As the album’s title Closure/Continuation implies, the future of the group beyond this album and tour is unknown. Whether the former or latter is decided upon depends on how all three feel at the end of their 2022 activities. But as Wilson has said, “At the risk of contradicting myself at some future time, I have a strong intuition that if you want to see Porcupine Tree play live, the likelihood is that this will be your last chance.”

Wilson, Barbieri, and Harrison collectively spent five hours with Innerviews over Zoom discussing the considerations and creative process that informed the new recording, as well as select solo endeavors and collaborations.

Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson Richard Barbieri Gavin HarrisonPhoto: Adam Taylor

Steven Wilson

Tell me about the circumstances that led to bringing Porcupine Tree back together.

The first thing I want to point out here is that the band never officially dissolved. There was never any statement to the effect of, “The band no longer exists." Now, I say that with the caveat that obviously in interviews, I did try to get people to concentrate more on what I was doing at that moment, by being very dismissive about the band.

The material we are releasing on this new record goes as far back as 2012, which is when “Chimera’s Wreck” was written. So, there is a sense of continuity from the previous record, The Incident, which was released in 2009. We were writing material within three years of that album for a potential follow-up.

Obviously, that follow-up record has only just now come to fruition, but we were, on and off, working on this record for close to 10 years. So, in our minds, in our own little bubble, we had never stopped, but of course, to the outside world, it looked like the band had essentially ceased to function, when in fact it hadn't.

I think the COVID-19 lockdown definitely brought it into focus, because I'm not sure how long it would have taken us to actually get this record done, otherwise. A lot of the tours Gavin and I had scheduled for a couple of years got canceled. So, this record was one of the things we were finally able to do. We might have put it off indefinitely, otherwise.

There’s one section in “Harridan” where there's literally, within the same line of song vocal, a 10-year gap between the first half of the line and the conclusion of the same line of lyric. That blows my mind, because I can listen to it, and I actually hear the way my voice changed between 2012 and 2021. I don't think anyone else will notice, but I do, because I know where it is. So, it’s very strange for me to acknowledge what a long, extended, drawn-out process it was making the record. But there wasn't a time when we weren't planning to finish this record. There were years that went by when we didn't do anything at all to progress it even one step, but nevertheless, I think there was always the intention that we would ultimately finish and release it.

So, what I guess I’m saying is this really isn’t a reunion. I suppose it’s a public comeback. Whether it’s closure or continuation is something we’re going to decide at the end of the tour. Right now, we’re looking forward to the album release cycle and tour. I’m very excited about it. I can’t look beyond that.

Is there a sense of a rekindling of friendships within the new trio iteration of the band, after the tensions that heightened during The Incident tour in 2010?

That wasn't the most fun tour we did. I think we were beginning to get on each other's nerves a little bit, understandably. It was 20 years of incrementally building something. That took its toll. Richard Barbieri was somewhat upset with me, because I’d say in interviews “Forget Porcupine Tree. It’s not going to happen.” I didn’t realize Richard was reading so many of my interviews. I don’t even read my interviews. Again, that was me being frustrated that people weren’t necessarily concentrating on my solo album of the moment. I’d keep getting asked “When is Porcupine Tree coming back?” I’d just react and say “It’s not coming back. Can we forget about that and talk about this, instead?” But at the same time, I also knew that we were working on this new material, so it was a white lie in that sense.

So, there was no animosity at all between me, Richard, and Gavin, apart from some very English, unspoken resentment. The last show we did before we paused at the Royal Albert Hall wasn't the best feeling on stage, but I've been very vocal about it. The first chapter in my book Limited Edition of One is all about standing up on stage there and wondering why I don't feel this great sense of achievement.

Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson Richard Barbieri Gavin HarrisonPorcupine Tree, AIR Studios, London, 2022 | Photo: Adam Taylor

When Porcupine Tree went on hiatus in 2010, it was at the height of its popularity, with major deals on the table to continue touring. Describe what made you walk away from it.

It wasn't something seismic or premeditated. At the time, I thought, "Okay, I want to go make a solo record now," and I went off and did Insurgentes between Fear of a Blank Planet and The Incident. Then I went off and made Grace for Drowning. I was encouraged by people around me to put my own band together to tour that. That was key. Having my own band, and enjoying touring with them so much, being in control, and not having to compromise in any respect, reminded me of what I’d always intended for myself.

At that point, for me it, it was, “Okay, right. That was great. I've got to do another record like that. It was too much fun." So, we went on and did The Raven that Refused to Sing, and then that was a very successful record. After that, there was real momentum behind my solo career. It seemed like a shame to diffuse that momentum, so I kept going forward with it. One thing led to another, and my solo work got to the point where it pretty much eclipsed anything I'd achieved with Porcupine Tree. So, there was even less reason to go back to it. I said in a lot of interviews, “For me to go back to Porcupine Tree would feel like a terribly backwards step.”

I should also mention that I’m also well into writing my next solo record, which is very, very different from my previous ones. I think if I hadn’t had that waiting in the wings, I would feel quite ambivalent about Porcupine Tree, because for the first time in a long time, I feel I’m almost catering to the audience. There has always been a clamor for Porcupine Tree to return. But now, I see it as part of a continuum. Porcupine Tree is one strand of what I do, rather than the dominant strand.

I didn’t plan for my solo career to occupy a 10-year period in which I mostly focused on that, but that’s how it turned out. In a way, the success of my solo stuff led me to embracing Porcupine Tree again, without it feeling like a retrograde step. The solo career is so well-established and has moved far away from having anything in common with Porcupine Tree, that it almost legitimizes doing this album and tour for me. My last album The Future Bites is so different from Closure/Continuation, that they feel like two completely different sides of my musical personality. They’re not stepping on each other’s toes. That’s enabled me to internally embrace Porcupine Tree again.

How did the group arrive at its new trio formation?

There was no great, master plan. When we started writing for this new album, I was initially writing with Gavin. The first few tracks—"Harridan” and “Chimera’s Wreck”—were done with me jamming on bass with him. It wasn’t a premeditated thing. I thought "I'll just pick up the bass and we'll see if we can come up with some riffs." And it turned out that a lot of the songs were written on bass. It's very obvious to me, when I listen to the album. It's all based around the bass line and the rhythm parts.

So, having developed the core of the new album with me on bass, we were faced with two possibilities. Number one, we get Colin Edwin in, and I teach him how to play all my parts, and he re-plays them. The problem with that is that my style is completely alien to Colin's style, and vice versa. Colin loves dub music, and he plays in that sort of pocket. And here I am with this real twangy sound, playing the bass like a guitar player, which is what guitar players do when they pick up the bass. It’s more towards the Chris Squire and Geddy Lee approach. I’m using that very upfront approach, with melodic elements, and a lot of stuff in higher registers.

Given that, the second option was to come clean and say, "This record has been made by a creative core of three people, not four." I think, again, if this had been a very immediate follow-up to The Incident, we might have found the compromise that involved Colin. But the fact that there was this 12-year period between albums and knowing that it was going to be seen as a comeback, enabled us to take some new approaches. The thought was “Okay, if we’re going to do this, what do we want to change this time? What are we going to do to make this seem fresh? Let’s change the lineup a bit. Let’s change the artwork approach.” And that meant parting company with some of the people that were associated with us in the past, including Wes Dearth, who was a member of the touring lineup.

The new album was made by three people and three people alone. There are no guests on this record at all. Every sound you hear on it is played by me, Richard, or Gavin. That’s different from the previous albums. I think one the biggest changes in sound is the way I play bass. It’s a completely different approach to the previous Porcupine Tree albums.

I think we’ve made a really good record. Richard and Gavin are very enthusiastic about it. There are some obvious differences from where we left off and where we resumed. The metal influence is very minimal on this record. In fact, that was one of the reasons I got bored with Porcupine Tree. I felt we’d painted ourselves into a bit of a corner with the metal thing. I was tired of that vocabulary, so that’s gone on this record. There are a couple of big riffs, but not many.

It’s a very uncompromising record. That’s not to say any of our previous records weren’t, but there’s nothing on this record that would even have a hope in hell of getting played on radio. I consider that a strength, not a weakness. It’s very focused and self-indulgent. It’s the purest Porcupine Tree statement possible. There are seven tracks and each one is a little diamond, in a way. Each fulfills a different role on the record. They’re all epic, ambitious, and experimental in their own way.

Even a ballad like “Of the New Day” has 42 different time signature changes in it, as Gavin informs me. That blows my mind. It’s amazing, because when you listen to it, you think “This is a very accessible ballad,” but it has this level of complexity in it. “Walk the Plank” is also interesting in that there are no guitars on it. We said, “Let’s do a track where it’s me and Richard creating keyboard parts and sound design, with Gavin on drums.” That’s not something we would have done in the past, when roles were more clearly delineated and defined.

At this stage in our career, we need to be excited by what we’re doing as a collective. And the way we got excited was to try these new approaches.

In terms of the touring lineup, Gavin is the musical director. He was responsible for hiring the two musicians joining us, Randy McStine on guitar, and Nate Navarro on bass. They both sound great and I’m sure it will work out well. They’ve both worked with high-profile people and are very experienced.

Elaborate on the collaborative approach that informed the album.

The most important change with this record was the decision to write in partnership, and maybe that's why the record is also so strong.

Apart from “Of the New Day,” all the other tracks are collaborations with either Richard or Gavin, or all three of us in the case of “Herd Culling.” We did that one together. It was the last track we did on the record during lockdown. “Dignity” and “Walk the Plank” were written by me and Richard, and “Harridan,” “Rats Return,” and “Chimera’s Wreck” are myself and Gavin.

Fairly early on, when we were considering this album in 2012, I decided “I'm not going to write music and present it to Porcupine Tree anymore. If we're going to make more Porcupine Tree music, then it should come from at least two of us working together." And that was pretty much how it panned out, with the one exception. It also meant we would create something very different.

In the past, I would practically walk into the room and say to the guys “Here’s the next record.” I’d hand them CD-Rs of nine songs. I think they got fed up with that in the end, understandably. There was no opportunity for them to insert themselves into the creative process. So that, in fact, might be the biggest change of all. This is truly the most collaborative Porcupine Tree album that has ever been, and it might also be why it's the one that sounds the most unique.

It stands to reason that when you get one person writing material on their own, their influences tend to come through more clearly. If you get two or three people writing together, those influences get all thrown into a big melting pot, but they come out in a more unique, gestalt kind of way. I think that's definitely true. When I listen to a track like “Harridan," it's completely Gavin and it's completely me. When I hear “Walk the Plank,” it's completely Richard and it's completely me. It's the combination of the two personalities that make those songs.

Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson Richard Barbieri Gavin HarrisonPhoto: Adam Taylor

Let’s dive into a few of the album’s tracks, starting with “Herd Culling,” which is an incredibly mercurial and dark piece. What inspired it?

Skinwalker Ranch is known as one of the most haunted places in the world. It’s a property located near Ballard, Utah. It’s reputed to be the site of paranormal and UFO-related activities. It’s a fascinating story, regardless of whether you believe in this stuff or not.

A family that lived there during the ‘90s claimed to be under siege by paranormal activity, whether it was creatures outside their house or UFO-related things stealing and killing their cattle. So, the first line of the song "Son, go get the rifle, I think there's something in the yard," is about this family defending themselves and their ranch against paranormal entities and activity.

Ever since I was a kid, I've been fascinated with the idea of ghosts. I'm not sure if I believe in them, but I've always wanted to. I’m a still a skeptic when it comes to the UFO stuff and government cover-ups. But I love the stories. Skinwalker Ranch is a fantastic and bizarre one.

Wild. I thought it was a statement about societal violence that’s on the uptick, and all the unnecessary paranoia and hysteria the media creates for us.

I love that interpretation. In fact, I wish I could take everything I said back and use your interpretation every time someone asks me about what this song is about. But that’s the beautiful thing about music. In a way, I hate deconstructing songs and lyrics, because you always end up robbing the person you’re explaining it to of their own interpretations. It’s not like books and film, in which everything is kind of explained to you in the narrative. Pop music isn’t like that. It’s open to being filtered through the prism of the listener.

Also, very often, I might write something, and someone tells me what they thought it was about. And I think “I didn’t intend it to be that, but actually, you know what? Subconsciously, yes. It may be about that.” When writing lyrics, there’s always a sense of slightly automatic writing going on. I’m always looking for lyrics with musicality about them. So, they don’t always necessarily make obvious literal sense, but they sound good.

When Paul McCartney wrote “Hey Jude,” he had that line "The movement you need is on your shoulder." And he said to John Lennon, “Don’t worry, that’s just a temporary phrase. It doesn’t mean anything. I’m going to change it.” Lennon said “No, you have to keep that. It’s an amazing line.” It’s because it’s sometimes about the poetry of the words. Retrospectively, you read things into them. I’m very much in favor of embracing those things.

I should mention that this record doesn’t have any overall theme. There usually always has been in the past, even if the songs weren’t necessarily directly related. There would be obsessions that would pop in from one song to another, whether it was serial killers on In Absentia or ghost stories on The Raven that Refused to Sing. The Future Bites obviously had a very strong core concept, too. But here’s a record that was written over a period of 10 years. So, the lyrical approaches and concerns are all over the place. And maybe that’s for the better and is a strength.

“Chimera’s Wreck” sounds like it’s exploring existential territory and mortality. Is that accurate?

So, you’re absolutely right on this one. It was written after my dad passed away in 2011. The original version had lyrics that were much more self-referential. Originally, I said, “Here I am. I find myself at 44.” That was my age at the time I was first writing.

The song is about losing someone so close. When my dad died, at that point, I became the oldest male member of our family. My brother’s younger than me. We have a very small family and that had me dwell on certain themes of mortality. I’ve done that before, but it became much more personal on this song.

I was asking myself questions like “Why am I doing this? What am I doing with my life? What did I want to achieve?” In a way, this circles back to my book, because writing it made me focus a lot on those things. Some of the questions I explore in it include “What did I intend when I started down this road? What was my dream when I became a professional musician? How do I measure that against where I have actually arrived?”

Porcupine Tree had a song years ago called “Arriving Somewhere but Not Here,” and that was very much about the idea that you kind of arrive somewhere you didn't intend to, but you're kind of happy where you ended up anyway. And I think that my life and my career are testaments to that. This is not what I intended at all.

And I acknowledge this in the book. This is not what I intended when I fell in love with pop music as a kid, I imagined something completely different for myself. And of course, part of that is that the industry changed beyond recognition, not once, not twice, but several times during my professional career. So, I couldn't possibly have arrived at the point that I imagined anyway, because the whole landscape has changed many times over, but it's interesting to be able to acknowledge to myself, what I have achieved and to measure that perhaps against what I imagined all those years ago.

So, coming back to your question, I think when my father passed away, there was a lot of that kind of soul searching going on. Not only in terms of my career, but also my family situation. I mean, obviously a lot has changed for me in the last five years as well. And you might argue that the beginning of that is with my father passing away and me taking stock in my mid-forties about what I had done and what I want to do going forward.

Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson Richard Barbieri Gavin HarrisonPhoto: Adam Taylor

“Rats Return” is an indictment of the insanity of being drunk on political power. It also feels like the song that most connects to the In Absentia and Deadwing period.

I can understand why you might say that. It’s the one song that has a very obvious metal riff on it, which would connect it back to that era a little. I love that track, too.

The people that rule our lives and planet are the rats in this particular song. The middle eight, which I thought was originally too absurd to carry through, I went with anyway. I decided “Fuck it, pop music is absurd anyway, let’s do it.” It’s a list of dictators.

Making pop or rock music—or any art—when things are as dire as they have been going back six years feels a little like Nero fiddling while Rome’s on fire. I don’t know if what I do serves any purpose, but there's truth in the idea that people need music and the arts more than ever.

The conversation many of us are having these days is "Are people going to come to our shows? Haven't they got better things to spend their money on during these difficult times?" The price of gas and electricity in this country have doubled in the last few months because of the crisis in Russia. It's expensive to be alive.

Describe the design aesthetic you pursued for the album artwork.

It reflects my particular preference for bold use of text and what I call the negative art aesthetic. You see that with how the white square obliterates whatever it’s placed on. The image underneath it almost becomes irrelevant. It’s all about the white square. I love the idea that you can obliterate almost any photograph, whether it be of a piece of architecture, a family snap, a holiday snap, a landscape, or whatever it is, by plunking this white square on it with rather utilitarian black text. I also like that uniformity throughout the whole package.

I think it's also a reflection of the world we live in. We've become a very text-oriented world now. What I mean by that is I think text plays a much stronger role in our lives now than perhaps it used to, because everything is reduced to little thumbnails. So, text is now, in many ways, what marketing companies and commercial agencies use to get messages across—much more so than the '70s-'90s. During that period, it was a lot more about imagery. If you look at the work of some of the most cutting-edge designers right now, and I'm talking about the commercial world at large, a lot of it is based around text. This holds true for social media as well.

I think the power of imagery has been diffused slightly by the decline in attention spans. But a piece of text is immediate. A slogan or piece of text has a very immediate impact.

The company that did the design for the album is called The Designers Republic, who I've been a big fan of for many years, because of all the stuff they've done for Warp Records.

Tell me about the decision to sign with the Music for Nations label.

Our management took the record around and every label had a pitch, and Music for Nations was the best. I don’t wish to sound arrogant, but this is a record that's a no-brainer for almost any label. Here's a band coming back after 11 years with a new record and an established, loyal fan base that is very attached to buying physical products, including special editions. Music For Nations had a team we felt the most confident in, and they were the most enthusiastic. I think they want to evolve beyond being seen as a metal label, and this project helps dissuade that notion.

Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson Richard Barbieri Gavin HarrisonPhoto: Derick Bremner

I’d like to name some key people, projects, songs, and places from across Porcupine Tree’s history and have you tell me the first thing that comes to mind. Let’s start with Malcolm Stocks.

Malcolm is one of the people that's been very important in my life. He was someone I used to go record shopping with at a time that was very important for me in the sense of forming my musical taste during my late teens. He had a job while I was still at school, so he had money. We would kind of spend his money on records, and we would go up to London every couple of weeks to Virgin Megastore on the corner of Oxford Street and Record and Tape Exchange in Notting Hill.

We would just find records that looked interesting and buy them. This is long before the Internet existed. You would find records by artists that you had no clue about, and you had no way of learning anything unless you took the leap of faith and bought them. I remember going up to London and buying a record by Art Zoyd, and I knew nothing about them. All I based it on was the fact that there were some quite long tracks on the record, and I think it was in the art rock section. And that was enough for me to buy an Art Zoyd record.

I miss those days. I remember having a similar kind of experience at my local library. I’d take out anything that looked interesting. I remember discovering things like Carla Bley's Escalator Over the Hill, Wendy Carlos' Sonic Seasonings, and Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gruppen. I knew nothing about them, but I’d take them home, and mind blown. For every record that blew my mind, there would be three records that did nothing for me. But that trial-and-error process was important, which doesn’t happen anymore. Today, you can listen to everything instantly on YouTube and say “No, I don’t like that” and click away without giving something a real chance.

Coming back to Malcolm, he was my partner in crime. I discovered so many things with him at that very formative phase—music that became very important influences and inspirations to me throughout my life. For instance, we were obsessed with Peter Hammill’s solo career.

I was hanging around with Malcolm when I was working on No-Man music. I started making recordings as Porcupine Tree just to make Malcolm laugh. We were listening to all these records and falling in love with some of them. Then I’d go off and make pastiches of them just to amuse him. I’d go off and create a Soft Machine, Dukes of Stratosphear, or Daevid Allen and Gong pastiche the next day, and we’d have a good laugh.

Between the two of us, we came up with this bogus history of two shaman-like, hippie characters. One was called Porcupine Tree and the other was called Solomon St. Jemain who had this band called the Incredible Expanding Mindfuck. In retrospect, it was totally unfunny, but funny to us. We had our own little world in which we discovered all this music that no-one else we knew listened to. At the time, it felt like no-one else in the world was probably listening to Gong, Henry Cow, and Edgar Froese. Of course, they were, but we didn’t know about it because we weren’t connected to those people or had any way of being connected to them. To us, it felt like we were the only people on the planet who knew this music. I think this special bubble we were in was really important.

After I started making these songs to amuse Malcolm, I sent out a few tapes, and realized we couldn’t have been more wrong. Actually, there were a lot of people out there that were interested, and the first Porcupine Tree tape spread by word of mouth. I realized that people missed this kind of approach to music—the ‘70s approach or whatever it was. And that was the birth of Porcupine Tree. It would never have happened without Malcolm.

Tarquin's Seaweed Farm, Porcupine Tree’s debut cassette album (1989).

That's the tape I'm talking about. I ended up with about 90 minutes of material and every track was kind of a pastiche of somebody. Some were more successful than others in terms of being able to imitate the source material. I called it Tarquin's Seaweed Farm because of the Dukes of Stratosphear-feel about the name. They were a big influence on me at the time—the alter ego XTC adopted to make psychedelic records. They gave each other names like Sir John Johns, Red Curtain, and Lord Cornelius Plum for it. That’s why I had the fictional band members of Porcupine Tree at the time named Sebastian Tweetle Blampton III, Timothy Tadpole Jones, and The Evaporating Flan. Tarquin's Seaweed Farm tapped into that kind of silly Edward Lear, Alice in Wonderland sort of random word association thing.

When I sent the tapes out, I got a few responses. The most important one was Richard Allen, who was about to set up Delerium Records, which became the label that sold the band’s first CDs and LPs. A couple of other people responded, including Encyclopedia Psychedelica, which was a very influential, underground cult magazine at the time. They wrote very favorably about it. So, in a sense, those things kickstarted the whole Porcupine Tree thing to the point where I thought to myself, “Okay, this isn't just a joke. This is something that people take seriously, and maybe I can also take it seriously. And it's a lot of fun.”

The Nag's Head club in High Wycombe.

That was the venue of the first Porcupine Tree show on December 4, 1993. It was an experimental show because I wasn't sure if I ever wanted to play live as Porcupine Tree. I hadn't enjoyed playing live until that point with the other things I'd been involved in, whether it was No-Man or even the bands before that. I'd never liked being on stage. I didn't enjoy the attention of people. The idea of people looking at me wasn’t appealing. I was very shy.

So, Porcupine Tree kind of did this very, very short first tour. I think we did three shows. After The Nag’s Head, there were shows in London and Coventry. The Nag’s Head sold out and did phenomenally. It was 250 people, and they came from all over Europe and the rest of the world, because they were buying these records.

This was another moment in which I thought “This could be something. Perhaps I should be taking it seriously.” No-Man was still my day job at that point, and we were struggling to get an audience. And then Porcupine Tree came along and effortlessly sold out that show. It was a great and thrilling night in which I realized this could be the beginning of something. If I’d known what was to come, I might have thought twice about it, because it was a struggle for the next 20 years.

Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson Richard BarbieriPorcupine Tree, 1993: Richard Barbieri, Steven Wilson, Chris Maitland, and Colin Edwin | Photo: Delerium Records

Voyage 34 (1992).

That was my attempt to immediately take Porcupine Tree away from being something nostalgic. It was an early manifestation of my need to constantly change, reinvent, and move the goalposts. I did On the Sunday of Life, which was basically compiling those kinds of pastiches of ‘60s and ‘70s bands. Then I decided, “Okay, if this is going to be a serious thing, it can't just be about nostalgia. It has to be something about the present and be something contemporary.”

Voyage 34 was an attempt to kind of fuse those ‘70s influences with what was very big at the time in England—this sort of ambient trance, ambient house scene. I’m talking about bands like The Orb, Future Sound of London, and Orbital. I did something in a more contemporary, electronic style, but with some of the psychedelic elements, too. Voyage 34 is a little bit of an outlier in the catalog, because I never did anything quite like it again. It was a means to an end. It kind of encapsulated everything I wanted to say within that kind of approach in that one track. But that one track was extrapolated, extended, remixed, and became  an album-length thing in its own right.

The surround mix of In Absentia (2003).

That was done by Elliot Scheiner, and it was commissioned by DTS, a company which was very aggressively promoting surround sound in the market at that point. And they were commissioning all sorts of records to be remixed in surround. They were focused on records they thought would show off surround sound and immersive audio. And somehow, they'd heard Porcupine Tree and figured out that this would be a good band for this treatment. Lucky for me that they did feel that way because I don't know if I would have discovered surround sound, otherwise.

Certainly, the impetus for me going into surround was not liking Elliot's mix. That sounds like a weird thing to say, but the reason I say that is that the mix was sent over and I didn't really understand what 5.1 was, like a lot of people, then. I had this idea in my head of it, but I didn't truly get what it was until I heard it. And the first time I heard it was when the record company booked a studio in London for me to listen to the mix Elliot had sent along. I hated it, but I understood what could be done.

So, I persuaded the record label to fly me out to upstate New York to sit there with Elliot while he redid it with me sitting on his shoulder. And it was great to be able to learn from him and see how he did it. I understood a lot more about 5.1 mixing through that. I pretty much went straight back home and decided that I was going to invest in a 5.1 system of my own. I also decided I was going to start mixing everything in 5.1. And then a few years after, I got nominated for a Grammy for the surround mix for Fear of a Blank Planet, and the rest is history.

“Anesthetize” and “What Happens Now?” (2007).

Of all the long-form pieces I've written, “Anesthetize” might be the most successful in the way that the lyrical subject matter and music unfolds. It all works beautifully together in harmony. There’s a very strong concept on that. Around that time, I was thinking about the book Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis. Now, of course, it's a cliche to talk about how young people have short attention spans that are getting shorter all the time. But at the time, I think Ellis was one of the first people to really write about that idea of terminal boredom—you know, kids that are so well off and had so much leisure time. They were just boring themselves to death. I think he wrote beautifully about that, and I was so inspired. It really gave me a strong sense of direction for writing lyrics during that whole period.

The title track “Fear of a Blank Planet” was one of those songs based on the idea. “Anesthetize” was about being numbed by modern life, by the world around us, and the onslaught of information, recreation, news, and political manipulation. I think people were just beginning to be concerned about the way that technology was affecting the younger generation. It was quite a new thing back then and a beautiful kind of hook to hang all of these songs on.

I find it quite hard to write songs and music, generally speaking. I know some people have this idea of me as a workaholic and incredibly prolific, but that's all because of my work ethic, which I got from my father. I proverbially bash my head against the wall until I make a crack in it, but it's not easy. The Fear of a Blank Planet album was an exception. It all came pouring out, as well as the Nil Recurring mini-album that had “What Happens Now?” on it.

There was a lot of crossover between Fear of a Blank Planet and Nil Recurring. Very often, I would write something, not be completely happy with it, and then take elements from it I liked, and put it into the context of something new. Then I’d go back to the original thing and think, “That was pretty good anyway.” I think that’s happened a few times in my life and career, where I’ve gone back to the things I previously discarded and recycled the best ideas from them, realizing they’re a nice kind of alternative. So, that’s what Nil Recurring was—ideas that were rejected from Fear of a Blank Planet, that I felt were strong enough to stand up in their own right. So, there are certain motifs, musical, and lyrical ideas that appear on both. I like that kind of conceptual continuity.

Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson Richard Barbieri Gavin HarrisonPhoto: Adam Taylor

Provide some insight into your new book Limited Edition of One and what motivated you to engage in that project.

People have been trying to persuade me to do a book for 10 years now. I've always been quite dismissive of it because I always said, my musical career is not the stuff of music biographies. I don't have any of those, sex, drugs, rock and roll, or religious conversion stories to tell. Little Brown, who published the book, said “That's why you should do a book, because all the other books are the same. They all basically tell the same story.”

It’s true. Once you know that story, it's boring. We don't need another story about out the rise and fall of a rock and roll band. We don't need another book with those anecdotes anymore. I thought to myself “Maybe because I don’t have those stories, I could write a book that would be like a breath of fresh air in that sense.” So, I started to think about what I would write about. I decided I would write more about my ideas about music. I also chose to include short stories and lists about music, television, and movies. I spend a lot of time discussing the passing of my father and how that impacted me.

I tried to make it all work together as a book. It wouldn’t have happened if not for lockdown. I don't know if I would've ever really sat down and started this book, otherwise. But the cancellation of tours and that enforced kind of self-centered world I found myself in afforded me the opportunity to do the book. And once I had a few chapters, I realized it was going to work. And now I'm really proud of it. I like to think it's quite unlike any other music book that's ever been written, for better or worse.

It was hard to do. It wasn’t effortless, but it was a lot of fun. I was very conscious of not coming off as someone with a chip on their shoulder. It's very easy to fall into the trap of just putting all your woes on the table and whining about all the things you're not happy about, and all the injustices you felt you’ve suffered in your career. The chapters were rewritten multiple times with that in mind. I also tried to make it as universal as possible.

By definition, it is a book that is about me, and therefore it helps a lot if you know my music and about me, but I don't think exclusively so. I think a lot of the chapters work as thought pieces about what it means to be a musician operating at my level, which is neither completely obscure, nor completely mainstream, but somewhere in the middle. I hope it explains that as much to people who don’t know anything about me.

You helmed the surround mix for the new Tears for Fears album The Tipping Point. What made it a project you were so passionate about?

The Tipping Point is a great album. It’s wonderfully, quintessentially Tears for Fears, but it’s also a record that could only have been made now. The songs are great. The production is great. Roland Orzabal still has an amazing voice.

They actually made this record twice. The first time, in 2017, their management had placed them with contemporary pop writers to try and come up with contemporary pop songs. They made that record, listened back to it, and realized they hated it, and that it wasn’t them. They felt compromised and dirty—all those things you feel when you’ve done something for the wrong reasons. They took two songs from that batch and put them on a compilation, instead.

They then went back to square one and started working on a record from scratch. This time, they said to themselves “Let’s do it our way. Let’s not listen to any of these managers and go back to how we used to write records when we started.” And I think they did a fantastic job. It was an honor to be involved in the Atmos mix.

Atmos is perfect for spatial audio and immersive sound. Tears for Fears have all these layers of sound design, electronics, and sequences, which are ideal for the process. It’s great fun to do that in surround, because the regular rules don’t apply. With a typical rock band, you’ve got to keep the drums and bass together. And you have to keep the rhythm guitars with the drums and bass. But on The Tipping Point, there are so many layers to it. It’s one of those records which stereo is almost not big enough to contain it.

I remember saying something similar when I worked on the surround mix of King Crimson’s Lizard. Until the surround mix existed, you never could really hear that record properly. I think that’s largely true of Tears for Fears, as well. In a way, even though they didn’t know it, they were kind of making music for surround sound. I think that the new album is a great example of that.

What can listeners expect from your forthcoming 2023 solo album, The Harmony Codex?

It's going to maintain a lot of the musical vocabulary from The Future Bites, but it's going back into a more conceptual world, which is less about concise pop songs and more about experimentation. So, in the most simplistic terms, it might be somewhere between Hand. Cannot. Erase. and The Future Bites, but not like either of those records.

I'm really excited about it. I say that every time I have a new batch of songs, but there's really something unique about these songs. I have a feeling it could be a great record. I think the new album feels almost like the next step from The Future Bites, which was very streamlined and had a very strong pop sensibility. So, I asked myself “What am I going to do next, given that? Okay, I’m going to take those elements but place them withing something more ambitious.” Of course, everything informs everything else. So, I have tracks that have spiritual jazz elements, electronics, moments of progressive rock, voice manipulation, and modern DSP processing.

I’m so proud of The Future Bites, that I feel I want to do something different, because I can’t do anything better in that space. It’s perfect for what it is. I’ve only felt that way a few times in my career. When I made Hand. Cannot. Erase., I thought I couldn’t make a better conceptual, old-fashioned rock album. I don’t think I could better it now. I know how divisive The Future Bites was, given its allegiance to compact pop forms. But I always remind myself that the people who complain the loudest are in the minority. It’s usually the same 10-15 people. The actuality is The Future Bites was one of the most well-received albums of my entire career, broadly speaking.

I think people who like Porcupine Tree are going to love the direction of this new album. It’s much more epic and uncompromising. It’s more complex and unpredictable to a degree. After people experience the mercurial nature of this Porcupine Tree album, I think they’re going to look at the new solo album and think highly of it.

I wish I could have done The Future Bites tour, but COVID-19 got in the way. When the new album comes out, probably mid-2023, I’m going to be touring that record, as well as the new one. Some of the ideas I had for The Future Bites shows will be part of my next solo tour, as well. Between that and the Porcupine Tree album and tour, I think people have a lot to look forward to.

Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson Richard Barbieri Gavin HarrisonPhoto: Adam Taylor

Richard Barbieri

Tell me about your perspective on activating this new phase of Porcupine Tree.

My personal interests all relate to what I will get out of this on creative and emotional levels. For me, it's a case of if this is the last thing we do, then we’re ending with a great album, and also on good terms and friendships with Steven and Gavin. I think the way it ended previously, with The Incident album, was all a bit unsatisfactory for me. I’ve had to live with that for a long time. I've gone through different stages of being bitter about the whole thing, kind of letting go of it all, and now being enthusiastic about trying to rejuvenate it.

Wilson and Harrison have said the band didn’t really end, given that they continued working on music going back to 2012.

Yes, Steven and Gavin were working that far back on new Porcupine Tree music. They'd meet up, as they live near each other. Also, they can easily write together. Steven can play guitar, bass guitar, piano, or whatever, and he can  immediately get something going on a very instinctive and physical level. And that's not the way I work or can work. So, possibly for them, it was an ongoing thing.

For me, it felt like the band was finished. When reading Steven’s solo interviews, he would say things like "This will never happen again. That's the end of it. It would be a backward step." It was all negative, which I guess he was doing because he wanted to deflect the whole Porcupine Tree thing so that journalists concentrated on his solo work, which is understandable.

I never gave up writing music and wanting to work with Steven and Gavin, regardless of what was happening with Porcupine Tree. So, I would always send Steven music, and at one stage he said, "Richard, this all sounds great, but why don't you just put it on your solo album? " And at that point, I thought, "Well, that really is kind of the end. He doesn't have any intentions of carrying on with this." So, I let it go emotionally, mentally, and I started working on my solo music, and I had a good run of four or five years of doing solo music and solo concerts.

Regardless, I’d still send him more things. And then I heard he'd been working again with Gavin. Generally, we'd keep in touch anyway, regardless of the music. We'd text each other and we'd go out for a meal. I'd socialize with Gavin occasionally. So, I think the three of us never really let go of this feeling of wanting to work together. I guess it just became apparent at one stage along the way that the music they were working on could only really sound like Porcupine Tree.

It was around 2016 when they started to say, “Well, yeah, we might do this.” It was then I started becoming more proactive, writing more things, and giving Steven a lot of musical sketches. My success rate is usually about one in 12 with Steven, so I had to write a lot of things and have a lot of ideas. Luckily, him and Gavin picked up on some of the things I was doing.

I’m not a songwriter, even though I’ve worked with a lot of vocalists, but that’s the process. Steven and Gavin will get intrigued by maybe just one melody, one part of a track, or one sound. And it's never what I would've imagined them liking. But they know they can craft it into a song and then it develops from there. So, I put everything out there and see if any of it can find a home.

Once I knew Steven and Gavin had taken on board some of my ideas, we started to formulate how to expand them. Although we were working separately for the most part, we’d have a few sessions over at Gavin’s place. We’d hold listening sessions and try a few musical things out. It was very sporadic. Steven would go off and do another album and tour in between them, before another track was written. So, I didn’t fully mentally commit to this until I was certain it was going ahead, which was a couple of years ago. In the end it's become a co-written album.

Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson Richard Barbieri Gavin HarrisonPhoto: Alex Lake

What’s your take on moving ahead as a trio?

All I can say is it’s the way things progressed during that 11-year period. Gavin and Steven started writing. Steven started writing on bass, which was very different. And again, that changed the music—similar to the period when Steven was writing more on keyboards instead of guitar for the band.

It wasn’t anything against Colin Edwin. Porcupine Tree just became something different along the way. Also, after such a long period, you need things to be different. If this had happened a couple of years after the last Royal Albert Hall show, we would have probably had the same lineup.

We also had the COVID-19 lockdown and this kind of disassociation from people, really. So, it just turned out this way. I know we’ve upset a lot of people. We had new people that did the album artwork and photography. We have a new record label.

We’re also not using Wes Dearth, our previous touring guitarist, because we’re going down another route. The reason for that is, when we were thinking about the shows and how we were going to do them, we realized there were going to be quite a lot of keyboards. Rather, than putting stuff on backing tracks, which we’ve never liked doing, we wanted to find a multi-instrumentalist, so that’s the direction we went.

The fact is, things change in life. I’ve produced albums for bands in which I felt really close to the musicians. I’ll have had this great experience, and then they don’t call me back to do the next album. It’s never because they didn’t like me or because the work wasn’t good. It’s just time for them to go in a new direction. I don’t want any of this to negatively impact Colin or imply this was somehow his fault.

The three of you did interviews for The Guardian last March, which implied a significant breakdown in the band around the time of The Incident.

British newspaper journalists have a certain way of working. It's something I remember from my time in Japan, because we would often get articles in The Daily Mirror, The Sun, and The Times. Regardless of their political allegiances, they're all very similar when they come to dealing with artists, and they're looking for that one line in the interview that’s going to draw people in, and usually it's the negative. They like to emphasize that. So, The Guardian mentioned I was bitter, and that became a big thing. They tried to play us off each other a little bit. Everyone is focusing on that one line or sentence they emphasize, and it doesn’t provide a true picture of the story.

In The Guardian story, Steven said he felt really unappreciated by me and Gavin. He felt that we didn't like him or respect him, which is far from the truth. But he did say that, and so that’s his truth. I can’t deny there were problems. We should have had a break after the Fear of a Blank Planet tour and album, but we kept working flat out, and carried on to the point where we shouldn’t have. So, things became stale. It was also becoming more difficult to be away from home for so long.

We also had different levels of personal loss and bereavement while we were on the road, and we were all affected by those things. There was boredom. There were depression issues. There was anxiety. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was going through some problems, and I wasn’t particularly pleasant sometimes. It just wasn’t a great atmosphere.

It was a shame that it got to that point. I didn't think The Incident was particularly great, compared to the rest of the body of work. Steven started to get very remote. He'd spend a lot of time on his own. It was just kind of disintegrating, I think, which usually happens with bands. The happiest times are when you are playing crappy little venues, and you're all traveling together in a van. You're all in it together and all striving for something.

Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson Richard Barbieri Gavin HarrisonPhoto: Derek Bremner

You’ve released two solo albums, and several EPs since Porcupine Tree went on hiatus. Did that work influence how the new band material evolved?

I guess there's been some kind of progression in what I've done as a solo artist. I was very pleased with my 2017 Planets + Persona album. It marked a way forward for me to work with various ensembles and actually think of my music more in compositional, classical terms, almost. That was a big breakthrough for me. The last album, Under a Spell from 2021, became something different than it was going to be, but it still has its moments for me, for sure.

I don't know that any of this changed anything for me with Porcupine Tree, though. I think my moment of enlightenment occurred very early in my career, when I saw a path in which I could work with other musicians. It hasn’t changed since. The way I work with jazz, rock, and electronic musicians has remained the same.

Steven once said I was “The best soundscape artist since Brian Eno,” so that will last me two or three years before I need another compliment from him. [laughs] But basically, what I bring to the band is a level of non-musicianship. I contribute abstract ideas and sound that are somehow introduced into this rock band. Not many other people do it. There are great electronic artists who I love, but when they create their music, it doesn't interact with anything else. I don't hear many keyboardists within the group context or within rock music, working as an electronic artist.

Recently, Robert Fripp mentioned something along the lines of he liked it when musicians can get out of their own way. He said there's a tendency for virtuoso musicians to show you what they can do. And of course, not being gifted in that sense, and not understanding music theory, I haven’t gone down that path, fortunately.

So, what I do, both in my work, and with Porcupine Tree, is come to tracks with a producer mentality. I think “What does the track need? What is the vocalist singing about? Where are the spaces in the music? What frequencies are being used here? What can be added?” And if it can't be added at that point, I won't play it. That for me is a success—making that decision.


Let’s discuss some of the tracks you co-wrote on the album, starting with “Herd Culling.”

It was initially written by Steven and Gavin as a piece. And I found it quite hard to integrate into it. I couldn't work out what was throwing me off track. Ultimately, I think it was the time signature of 11 that was quite difficult for me. It took me a while, but once I started working with it and getting overdubs, I became more positive about the piece.

What I tried to do was pick out some of the themes within it and then create this piece at the end of the track that's almost like an afterthought. That part of the song is almost like the aftermath of what happened at Skinwalker Ranch. You know something bad has happened, and then you get two minutes featuring this construct I put together of various electronics. The idea is to sum up the feeling of the track. Steven really loved it and wanted to expand it, and it became a part of the piece. So, it wasn’t a conventional three-way composition.

“Dignity” features lots of your signature atmospheres and moods. Describe how it came together.

In this case, Steven took three separate pieces of my musical tracks that I sent to him and constructed something out of those. So, it's kind of three compositions of mine that he's managed to pull together and actually turn it into a very typical Porcupine Tree song with all of those things that you recognize about the band, with beautiful harmonies and very melodic acoustic guitar backing. He's a craftsman. He can do these things and work this kind of magic.

On one of the sections, which is the intro and is reprised later, you’ll hear this kind of playground scene. I was thinking of the main character, who's this person who's ended up homeless with nothing, but he actually has a past, intelligence, and dignity. That's the whole point of it. There are people living on the streets who’ve had amazing careers and families, but they’ve ended up there through circumstance.

To illustrate that, right at the beginning you have the children's voices with this background sound design going on. I used Lisen Rylander’s voice, who I’ve been working with a lot. She’s got a very choirboy-like voice that’s very pure. It also makes a return during the dynamic section of the track. From the intro, we move into the basis of the song, with the chords taken from a track I wrote. It has many changes and it’s my favorite track on the album.

“Walk the Plank” is the most experimental piece on the album. What’s your take on its themes and construction?

It has more in common with tracks like “Bonnie the Cat” and “What Happens Now?” It's more electronic and has my vibe in it, for sure. Gavin’s reacting to it in a different way than typical in Porcupine Tree. Rather, he’s reacting to it as if he was working with me on another project, in a way. It has a little bit of a Japan vibe to it, I think, as well. There are no guitars on it at all. I think it's the joker in the pack. It's the side of Porcupine Tree that's veering towards the edge and couldn't really go any further, otherwise it wouldn't be Porcupine Tree.

Lyrically, it’s about people corrupted by power—the sort of characters that are causing global trouble. It’s a sign-of-the-times commentary.

Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson Richard Barbieri Gavin HarrisonPhoto: Adam Taylor

What’s your perspective on the state of the world surrounding this album and tour?

The last six years have been very, very strange with the political landscape changing. Leaders with great responsibility have somehow brought up the absolute dregs of society to prominence—people who probably couldn't do another job if they tried. And that has been pretty frightening. We have a very low caliber selection of government officials in charge of very important processes, including making decisions about wars. We’ve also got COVID-19. It’s a period of confusion and the world feels so different.

It all changed when Bowie died. I’m not saying that’s the reason, but I remember discussing it with my wife Suzanne. Everything from that point onwards took a downturn. We’ve got a terrible situation in the UK in which everything is becoming unaffordable. People are going to suffer terribly.

I think the COVID-19 lockdown played havoc with people’s personalities. People’s mental health was hit hard. It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, to be honest. It’s interesting, during the first half, I felt quite creative and inspired, but by the time we reached the second half, I was struggling, mentally. A lot of things came out of that, which I didn’t realize were there.

So, things are awful and very hard, and yet we’re going out there to talk about our album. You can’t help but feel guilty, but on the other hand, you feel like you should try and carry on as normal. If you don’t, you’re giving into the situation even more.

Have these situations heightened the importance of music in creating an escape from reality?

I think art and music have always fulfilled that function. They can be life-changing for some people. For others, music is a way to relax and forget their personal troubles, and those of the world. It’s something to get lost in. But I’m not sure people listen to music in the way that our generations did. Today, music is an accessory for people’s lives. It’s all about little snippets that go with something else. It has become something different.

I think the generations you and I come from are the last that will recognize music as it has been for the last few decades. That approach is precious to me. I still pinch myself every day that I can go into a record store and buy a piece of art for 10 quid. It’s so cheap for what you’re getting. But for most people, it now seems an exorbitant price to pay—something they won’t do.

What can people expect from the forthcoming Porcupine Tree tour?

We'll play the entirety of the album, but we're not going to play it as one piece. We're going to mix it up with a few surprises, but mainly material from the albums that we feel are the best that Porcupine Tree did, which are primarily In Absentia and Fear of a Blank Planet. So, it'll be a good two-and-a-half-hour set.

The hard work for me is the process of getting everything ready for it. When I'm up there on stage, there's nothing physical going on. It's easy for me. It's a case of having concentration and being able to execute all the ideas. So, I’m in the stage of getting gear and sounds together and working out how I can do this. I’m also determining what's possible and what isn't.

We’ve had pre-rehearsals with the new touring lineup. In late August, we start proper rehearsals. I think the music will come across well on stage. There will be some surprises. It’s what I’m concentrating on. I’ve put aside the year for this.

We are going to record every night of the tour. We might film one of the shows. There could be a documentary that gets made.

You’re responsible for designing the band’s merchandise. Tell me about that process.

I think Steven and Gavin trust me as far as design goes. So, I've usually been involved with choices of design-based things that we do, even sometimes the way the live shows are presented. In terms of doing the merch this time, we’re going to use aspects of the album cover, and incorporate other styles into it. Together with the designer, we’ll come up with an overall theme that works. I did the merch for the prior tours, more or less, as well. It’s all a bit time-consuming, but the other guys have done so much. Over the years, Steven has been the admin for the band. Gavin is very good on the logistical and technical side of things. So, I’m happy to do this for the group.

Ultimately, we make group decisions about band business. People think Steven makes every decision for the band, but it really is a democracy and we each have votes. I’m nearly always outvoted by Gavin and Steven, but sometimes I’m on the winning side.

Your 2021 album Under a Spell took a very different approach from your previous solo recordings. How did it come together?

I’m quite happy with what I achieved. Even though I was working on my own, I managed to introduce a lot of live performances into the work. I used a lot of the sessions and work I did with the participating musicians from my previous album Planets + Persona. I reconstructed a lot of those, with many twists and turns. The album has a very introspective vibe, but it still has the input of other people, which was very important and makes it more interesting for me.

The previous album, Planets + Persona, was what I would call an expansive album. It was looking to the heavens and to the land. It featured big performances from people. There were ensemble pieces with lots of different instruments. Under a Spell was the opposite, it was everything drawing in. It was made in the atmosphere of deserted streets during the pandemic. I’d go on walks and wouldn’t see anyone. Life during lockdown was like living in a post-apocalyptic scene. When I’d go back to my studio, I’d internalize it all, and it would come out in the music.

What can we look forward to in terms of future solo output?

My focus this year is just Porcupine Tree, but in 2023, I’m thinking about doing another series of EPs such as the Variants ones I previously did. Variants was five EPs, each with five tracks, eventually released as a box set. For the next series, I think it could be a series of collaborations. I’d like to write a few songs with Tim Bowness, and new music with Steve Jansen. There are many artists I'd like to work with. I'm enjoying the EP-length releases, so possibly that could bear fruit quicker than full-length albums. Maybe I’ll do some solo concert performances as well.

Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson Richard Barbieri Gavin HarrisonPhoto: Adam TaylorGavin Harrison

What’s your perspective on bringing the group back together for this album and tour?

Despite many people saying the band has split up and would never work again, that wasn’t the agreement between the band members. I think that was something that Steven wanted to tell everyone, so they might focus a bit more on his solo career. But in secret, from 2012 onwards, I was jamming with Steven and writing songs with him, periodically. Sometimes there were three-month, six-month, nine-month, or even one-year gaps between writing sessions. We did them just for the love of the music and creativity. I always felt there was something special in the compositions of Porcupine Tree, and the way that we all reacted to them, even though at this point we are three very different musicians.

The Porcupine Tree Venn diagram probably only has a tiny little bit of overlap in terms of what we all love. That's probably the reason that it sounds so good to me. It’s because we're all coming from really different angles. It creates a very hybrid way of working and a very hybrid sound.

What people think of as the end of Porcupine Tree in 2010, wasn’t the end. After years went by, I’m sure everyone felt that was the case. But we had this project on the shelf and I thought, "Well, I really like this. Maybe one day we'll do something with it." And it went on for years. But just before the COVID-19 lockdown started, we had a meeting and considered trying to finish it. And when COVID-19 came along, it presented the perfect opportunity for us. We suddenly all had lots of available time to finally finish off the record.

Next, we said, "Well, there will be a lot of pressure from people to want to see us play live. Do you fancy doing that? Do you want to do a lot of live shows, or should we just do a handful big shows?" None of us really wanted to go on a big tour. So, we decided to do a handful of live shows. We’ve chosen places that we always were popular in and did well. There are many places in the world we'd like to play, and people would like us to play in, but for one reason or another, they were just too impractical, or it would have turned it into a giant world tour that we didn’t really want to do.

We didn't want to get back on a tour bus and go around the States for nine weeks, then South America for four weeks, and then Europe for 10 weeks. We did that on our last tour for The Incident. We toured over a period of 14 months for that album. By the end of 2010, we all really had enough. The relationships were getting a bit fraught. It was too long. It was too much.

We spend our lives being told by management, promoters, and record companies, “You've got to do this. You've got to do that. You've got to go here. You've got to go there. You've got to tour more.” Well, that’s great for them, because they're sitting back home with their feet up on the desk watching the money roll in. They’re not part of the band out there in Düsseldorf on a Monday night having done 10 shows in a row, really tired and completely drained. And as we are now 12 years older than we were in 2010, why put ourselves through that? Now, we can do a project in which we can choose exactly how we want it to work. That’s the ultimate goal and something I’ve learned from Robert Fripp. He always does things his way. People will always moan. They will always complain. But if you’re doing the thing that makes you happy, hopefully people will see that in your performance and want to come along and support you. I’m looking forward to the dates we’re doing.

How have the 12 years between Porcupine Tree recordings influenced the direction of the new album?

We’ve had a lot of experiences outside of the band in the last 12 years. Also, I was only in the band for an eight-year period from 2002-2010. I’ve played with a lot of other bands and many things have happened in my life. Twelve years is a big chunk of your life. I think the experiences that you have and the influences you bring from working with other musicians have an effect on everything. This new album is a reflection of our lives now.

Even though some of it was written 10 years ago, I don't think of it as old material. None of it was leftovers from The Incident or any other album. It was all created from a brand-new perspective. We're not trying to be trendy. We're not trying to be the latest thing. So, whether we wrote a song in 2012 or last week, it's probably going to have the same elements in it. It's probably going to have the same vibe, because it's a mixture of our personalities. It’s all about the chemistry of the people in the band.

Although we're not the greatest of mates in that we don't go on holiday together or to each other's houses for dinner parties, I think we all respect each other and what we've been doing in the last 12 years. I like what Richard and Steven bring to Porcupine Tree. And I like the version of me that fits inside and collaborates with those two guys. It's a different me than the me that’s in King Crimson or The Pineapple Thief because of the music and relationships.

Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson Richard Barbieri Gavin HarrisonPhoto: Derek Bremner

What’s your view on the band reemerging as a three-man unit?

The most clichéd thing I could say is musical differences, but that probably is at the very core of it. Musically, I felt like Colin Edwin was usually pulling us in a different direction.

Steven and I live very close to each other. We kept in touch after the last Porcupine Tree show. We would get together for a cup of tea and talk about life. He lost his dad very close to the same time I lost my mom, and we would sometimes just discuss our lives over the course of an afternoon.

When we did get together, usually the subject of “What do you think about doing something with Porcupine Tree?” would come up. Steven would say “I’m focused on my solo thing.” But in 2012, he came ‘round my place one day during a social visit, and I said “Let’s try and jam. I’ve got a bass guitar.” So, this new album started with Steven playing bass. And he does that in a very different style to Colin. It was the first time I’ve jammed with Steven, in which I’m playing drums and he’s playing bass. There was something incredibly liberating about it, because previous jams we’ve done were as a four-piece.

How did the trio’s creative process work?

When you’re jamming with more people, including a keyboard player, questions like “What's that chord? Is this E minor? What was that second chord?” come up. Steven would say, “Well, I don't know yet, I'm still changing key and chords." And likewise on the drums. When Steven and I were jamming, we would just play in free time. I’d change tempo whenever I wanted. I might play with brushes or sticks. Steven would play either bass or guitar. We’d just be fumbling around like people wrestling on the floor. And then suddenly, we’d look up at each other and say “Oh, this is nice. What’s this? I like that.”

Sometimes we’d jam for 10-20 minutes with nothing interesting happening. We might start with a rhythm, guitar riff, or bass line to get us going. We would recognize when something interesting was happening and then maybe work on that idea for two or three days until we felt it had some possibility for moving forward with. There are lots and lots of demos we did where we said, "Yeah. It's nice, but we don't know where to go next with it. Put that on the hard drive. Forget that one." A few years later, we might listen back and go, "You know what, I've got another idea for this jam that we had a little while ago."

It was liberating to write in a different way than we ever did on previous Porcupine Tree records. You need a lot of trust in your writing partner. It's like you're exposing your inner soul. You're going to play some terrible mistakes along the way, and there are going to be some musical disasters. You need to feel comfortable with someone to have those as part of your process. You don't always want to show that side of yourself to someone you don't know very well. When you have that trust, you can both agree “This sounds really bad. Let’s never ever play this to anyone. Let’s try something else.”

So, it was a nice experience to write like that, and then bring in Richard, who contributes something very different. He’s not someone who jams. He’s a sound design expert. He brings something very unique and magical to the music. It’s something you would never think of when you’re writing from a pure bass, drums, and guitar point of view. He writes whole sections and pieces built around sound design. He doesn’t go, “Here are a bunch of chords on a Fender Rhodes.”

There were times where Richard would come ‘round to my studio and Steven would be there. We'd discuss the music and work on ideas. It was very laid back. We had no agenda and no time limit. We didn’t even have a record company for most of it. It was just like, "Well, let's just do it for the fun of it and see what happens." And eventually after all those years, we decided, “Let's try and finish this thing.”

To me, none of the new album sounds like anything we’ve done before. I recognize there's a sound that the three of us make, which people are always going to respond to by saying, "Oh, that sounds like Porcupine Tree." They probably hear something they don’t hear in Steven’s solo albums. The core of Steven, Richard, and I make something that sound like Porcupine Tree happen. It’s very hard to quantify.

“Harridan” is a real showcase for your signature rhythms. What inspired its musical direction?

I went to South Africa to do some drum clinics and when I finished the clinics, I got back on the plane in Johannesburg. I was just sitting on the plane, waiting for it to take off, and this idea for a rhythm came to my head. Sometimes, inspiration comes just because you're in a different place. I might be walking around the Olomouc town center in the Czech Republic, through the streets of Paris, or just sitting on a plane, and that makes me think about things in a different way. So, I wrote the rhythm down on the back of my boarding pass and thought, “Yeah, that’s nice.” The next time I saw Steven, a couple of months later, I said “I’ve got this groove in 5. It doesn’t sound like an obvious 5 to me. Pick up your bass and see if you fancy playing to it.”

I played the drum groove and within 30 seconds, Steven started getting into that groove, which became the opening of “Harridan.” We both thought, “This feels great. Let’s record something. I like the way this is going.” Then, we said, “Let’s try to write a bridge and the chorus.” The dotted 8th note subdivision across 5 is quite an attractive thing from a rhythmic point of view. Steven said, “Yeah, I can sing with that. I’ll come up with some lyrics against that riff.”

So, we came up with “Harridan” very quickly. We were both excited by it. We felt we had written something really good and couldn’t wait to hear what Richard would do with it. He did something amazing with it, as he always does. It all happened naturally and just flowed.

Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson Richard Barbieri Gavin HarrisonPhoto: Adam Taylor

Tell me about the drum approach that informs “Rats Return.”

“Rats Return” is something I thought of when I was riding my bicycle and said to myself, “I wonder if I could write a rhythm that sounds like Morse code and is very jagged with lots of spiky bits?” So, the idea is playing a song with a little Morse code rhythm that’s identifiable throughout the piece, even if it’s played really softly. And sometimes, we could play it all together, right on the money. I think there’s a tiny section where we don’t play that rhythm, otherwise, it goes throughout the song.

It’s a conceptual rhythmic piece in which we found a way to write a song over this long syncopation. Most people take a syncopation, like one bar in “Bo Diddley.” Okay, that’s syncopation, but it’s the same bar over and over again. That’s fine, because the listener gets attached to it. Lots of rock songs have a one-bar syncopation and that becomes a thing. But what if a band that makes more experimental music has a two-bar, three-bar, or four-bar rhythm in which it’s going to take at least half the song before people recognize that there is a repeat of a four-bar syncopation, in which every bar is different? So, the repeat cycle is quite long. like solving a rhythmic puzzle. That kind of thing really fascinated me.

“Chimera’s Wreck” came together as a hybrid of the demo and recording sessions. How did the process work?

This came out of one of our jams. Steven picked up an acoustic guitar. We were sitting opposite one another in my little studio. I used brushes, because I didn’t want to drown him out. And we just played together with no click, in free time. We were able to speed up and slow down and make wave shapes with the tempo.

When it came time to record the album, we realized we couldn’t re-record that part of it. It was impossible to copy. So, Steven wrote lyrics and did backing vocals over this very flowing rhythm part with the brushes and guitar from those demo recordings. On the final guitar track, you can hear the drums. And on the drum track, you can hear guitar. It isn’t a very hi-fi recording.

When we were making the demo, we weren’t thinking “Hey, this is going to be part of the album.” But there was a certain charm and innocence to the demo in that we didn’t really know what was going to happen in the next bar. We were just following each other, timing-wise.

It will be tricky to play live, as the piece goes through a lot of changes. It’s nine-and-a-half-minutes long and is the big epic piece of the album.

You’re the musical director for the tour. What’s involved in that role?

I don’t know why, but something similar happened in King Crimson. People would look at me during rehearsals and say, “What are we going to play next? How many bars are in this section? What’s the time signature at this point?” I never asked to be the musical director of King Crimson or Porcupine Tree, but I’m someone who’s quite OCD. I like to have all my stuff lined up and know exactly what I’m doing.

Before rehearsals start, I've got everything planned out and I know all the sections. I know what I'm going to play. I know what other people are meant to be playing. I've probably got a comprehensive overview of what the whole piece is going to be like. People look to me to answer questions like, “Is there a click track? How do we start this piece?” And I explain it. I also sort out how we synchronize with the films projected during the show. I was also responsible for incorporating our new touring musicians, Randy McStine and Nate Navarro, into the rehearsal process.

Everyone in the band has a function beyond the recording of the music. Richard always looks after the merchandise, including the T-shirt designs. That’s a massive job. I’ve always said to him “I like the designs you come up with. You don’t need to include me on any emails about what you’re doing with merch. You have my confidence.” That’s similar to all the many elements Steven manages for the band. We have to trust each other, or nothing would ever get done.

As for this tour, we're going to play the whole new album and a selection of songs from the past. A lot of it's coming from In Absentia, Fear of a Blank Planet, and Deadwing. There's some stuff from the time before I joined the band, including a song we’ve never played before.

The three of us sat around the kitchen table at Steven's house and wrote a set list, because we needed to know what songs to rehearse. We need to know them for the lighting director and to have films made, too. We thought a lot about which songs work together, and in what order. Within 20 minutes, we came up with a set list we all wanted to play, and felt it was a great mixture of music from different albums and times. I think the crowds will be pretty pleased.

Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson Richard Barbieri Gavin HarrisonPhoto: Adam Taylor

In 2015, you reinvented key songs from the Porcupine Tree catalog as big band pieces on your solo album Cheating the Polygraph. How do you look back at taking the music apart and reconstituting it so uniquely?

Something I really love doing is arranging. I think I can see the breakdown of all the parts of the formula, including the chords and the melody. I came up with alternative chords, different rhythmic structures, and took parts of songs that were in one time signature and placed them in another time signature.

I worked together with a very good friend of mine, a big band arranger and bassist named Laurence Cottle. It was a fascinating process to try to reimagine some of these songs.

During that period, Steven would come ‘round to my house and I'd play him a song. One minute into it, he’d say “I don't know which song it is, Gav." I said, "Well, you wrote it. Can't you hear that melody?" And then it would click.

It’s like re-editing a film. You can take a film, re-edit and give it a completely different vibe. When you see a film, there might be hundreds of hours of footage that were edited to create it. Those choices determine what slant it has. Creatively, it’s very interesting to reconsider those things.

The original already exists, and I wasn’t saying there was anything wrong with those. Rather, it was “Let’s really try to re-edit it like a film and give it a completely different twist.” I did things like take really heavy songs that were metal-based and turned them into ballads—and vice versa.

It was a bucket list thing for me to do, because of my love of brass, and the fact that my dad is a trumpet player. So, this album has very modern brass arrangements. There’s very little of it you could assign to the universe of Nelson Riddle, Buddy Rich, or Glen Miller.

Reflect on your journey with King Crimson from 2008 to when it went on hiatus in 2021.

It really was an incredible journey, and I probably won’t realize its significance for quite a few years. Nothing is a classic until it's about 10 years old. When we look back at this King Crimson 10 years from now, I think it’ll be considered amazing. People will ask “How did they ever pull that off with three drummers, playing that catalog of songs?” It was extraordinary and probably too profound and big to digest whilst we were doing it.

It was a profound experience to be part of the start of a new version of King Crimson. I had previously joined an older version in 2008, just for a very short period of time. It had Adrian Belew, Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto, Robert Fripp, and I became the second drummer. And that was a very different vibe to the 2014 version with three drummers and Jakko Jakszyk and Mel Collins in the band. It presented all sorts of interesting challenges that we needed to find solutions for.

Robert Fripp gave me a very nice blank canvas. He said, "I want you to reinvent the way drums fit into a rock and roll orchestra." He assigned me the job of arranging the drums, which I presented to the two other drummers and then we manipulated it. It didn't end up exactly how I intended, because the personalities of Pat and Bill Rieflin came through. So, we tweaked the parts and we changed this and that. It was amazing to be a part of.

But I think things run their course. We did seven years of work over eight years, with a one-year break because of COVID-19. I think nothing can go on forever, just as Porcupine Tree stopped after I was in it for eight years. After seven years with King Crimson, it was time for a break. Maybe we’ll come back again as King Crimson in the future. But we worked very solidly for a long time. In 2019, we did a crazy number of shows. I think life is about balance. You have to get it right and not do too much of one thing and not enough of another.

The balance we achieved with King Crimson felt appropriate. Concluding in Japan last year just felt right. I don’t think Robert has decided “That’s the end.” He never said that to any of us. Rather, it felt like the conclusion of an idea that began in 2013. He called us all up that year and said “One year from now, I want this band to come together. I’ve had this vision. I can see it on stage. I see three drummers at the front, and we’re playing this material.” It was fantastic, bore its fruit, and grew into something. Perhaps there wasn’t any point in carrying on playing the same things over and over again to pretty much the same people. Perhaps there needs to be another way we can reach other ears.

Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson Richard Barbieri Gavin HarrisonPhoto: Adam Taylor

You revisited The Pineapple Thief’s back catalog on its latest album, Give it Back. Talk about the process of putting your stamp on this material.

I’m not the first drummer in The Pineapple Thief. I only joined in 2016 for the Your Wilderness album. When I started, they had 10 albums behind them. When I first went on tour with them, the conversation was “We’ll play all the new stuff, but we’re going to have to play some old stuff, too.” So, they said “Go back and listen to the songs and let us know what you’d like to play.” So, I started randomly going through the songs. Sometimes I’d hit play on a song and think “Oh, I’ve got an idea for this. Let’s write this song down.” Then I’d say to Bruce Soord, “Hey, I was just listening to ‘Dead in the Water.’ Can you send me a multitrack version? I want to chop it up and change time signatures.” He’d say “Yeah, great.”

Bruce sent me multitracks of lots of songs. I’d sit and play drums to them. Sometimes, I did radically different things, and rearranged what was already there. Then Bruce would re-record his guitar parts and vocals, Jon Sykes would redo his bass, and Steve Kitch would redo keyboards. And that’s what became this album. It’s not really a best-of. Rather, it’s what I found personally inspiring from their back catalog. They sparked off ideas. I might say something like, “What if we do this much slower, in 6?” I would speed up or slow things down, compress them, and send them back to the guys for their approval.

So, this is a reimagining of the earlier music, but not as drastic as Cheating the Polygraph was. It was loosely based on Robert Fripp’s idea during my time in King Crimson, during which he would say, "Just treat every song as if it was a new song, regardless of when it was written." That was still in the back of my head when making this album. I would think, “Forget the fact it was already on an album 15 years ago. What would I do with it if he sent me this as a demo?”

A lot of this music was stuff I had heard for the first time. Same with King Crimson. I didn’t have the whole back catalog for both bands. So, I revisited their past with fresh ears. In a way, it was an advantage that I was hearing this music for the first time.

With “Wretched Soul,” I chopped it up to create a completely different feel. I turned it from a straight 16th- note pumping song into a Led Zeppelin-like, laid-back triplet vibe. I chopped up all the guitars. I chopped up all the keyboards. With “Dead in the Water,” I changed the time signature into 11, because it created a more interesting flow. I would send it back to the guys and see what they thought of what I did. And I can't remember a time when they said, "No, I didn't like that." They're a band that likes surprises.

The original versions still exist. I’m not rewriting history. If you prefer the original, it’s still there. This was a vibey way to revisit the back catalog, and now we have a lot more tunes from it we can play in a new way.

You’ve had several experiences building up bands and their profiles through hard work and sheer tenacity. After hitting the heights you have with Porcupine Tree and King Crimson, what motivates you to engage in that process again with The Pineapple Thief?

I’m just a sucker for punishment. [laughs] It’s true, I’m back playing in the clubs I did with Porcupine Tree 18 years ago. But the most important thing is that I enjoy the music. Whether I’m playing a jazz club or a stadium, I’ve still got to enjoy the music. If you don’t enjoy the music and the band’s very successful, it’s still quite an unhappy band. There are drummers in bands who are very successful, but they’re hating the experience. And life should be about enjoyment, shouldn’t it? So, if you’re doing something you enjoy, that’s the measure of success, more than measuring success in numbers.

Typically, people say “It was more successful when we played to 20,000 people than when we played to 2,000.” But that’s a really bad way to think about things. The numbers are never enough. If you’re playing to 20,000 people, you start saying “Why aren’t we playing to 200,000 people? Why isn’t our record number one in every country?” The numbers are never enough. Success, to me, is about if the music makes me happy.

I don’t think I’ve ever been happier with a record I’ve done more than Cheating the Polygraph. I don’t even know if it has broken even on the money I invested in it. I paid for it myself.

The Pineapple Thief is a band of younger people than Porcupine Tree and King Crimson. Is there an element of wanting to work with a group that has a longer-term potential future?

Yes, they’re younger guys than me, but it’s more about how much longer I can go for. I’ll do it as long as I enjoy it. I can’t imagine it right now, but there might come a time when I feel I can’t play the way I want to play any longer. I’m very, very self-critical. I know when I’m playing at the top of my A game. When I’m anything less than that, I’m frustrated. So, if I can keep up that level, I’ll keep going. The moment I think “Ah, I can’t play like this anymore” will be the time to stop. I don’t want to turn into some embarrassing old man on the drums who can barely hit the cymbals.

I don’t compare myself to anyone else but myself. I know the level I can get to on a good night. Some nights, I’m happier than others from a performance point of view. Other people might say “Hey, you played great tonight,” but only I really know if I got close to the top level.

Neil Peart kept doing it until he felt he had to stop. There are a few drummers older than me who are still at the top of their game, like Simon Phillips and Danny Carey. They have a few years on me, so I’m using them as a yardstick. They’re still playing as fantastic as they ever did. So, I think “Well, I’m not too old yet. I can still play the way I want to play.” But at age 70 or 75? I don’t think I can play like I do in those age categories. So, there is a limited shelf life to playing the drums as a quite physically-demanding instrument.

I could say “Well, I’ve got enough money to retire now, so why carry on torturing yourself?” But it’s not torture. The music is part of my soul. It’s what I do. It’s not a question of the money or the number of people in the audience. This is what I bring to the world. It’s very important for me to do that. I could have retired years ago and just sat in my garden with my feet up, reading a book. But that’s not what has driven me the last 42 years as a professional drummer.

I’ve still got a fire inside that’s driving me. The feeling of when you’ve given a great performance is the best feeling in the world. It’s what motivates me. I keep striving for it. There’s a feeling of euphoria that comes over you on stage when it’s happening, and things sound great. I might be the only one in the room feeling it, but that feeling is inspiring and keeps you going. If everything was a drag, I would have given up years ago, because it’s quite a hard life, living on the road out of a suitcase and sleeping on the bus. It’s not the kind of life I imagined for myself in my fifties.

Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson Richard Barbieri Gavin HarrisonPhoto: Adam Taylor

Sanity & Gravity, your first solo album from 1997, was recently remastered and reissued. How do you look back at that recording and period of your career?

I was searching for a path and way to express myself on the drums, which wasn’t technique-based. It wasn’t like “Here’s a drummer’s solo album and check out how fast I can play.” I wanted to really try and play in a very musical way. I was imagining I was playing the trumpet or saxophone, not just having to hold down beats, time, and groove. I wanted to express myself more melodically on the drums. I wrote music for these melodic things I would do. Some of the songs were actually written as a drum improvisation, together with various keyboard players. So, the drums actually wrote the melodies for everyone.

The album has a piece with Jakko Jakszyk, and two with Dave Stewart. I also had a very nice time jamming with Mick Karn on that album, who I was a big fan of. There are a few pieces I did with Mick and Gary Sanctuary on it, which I was so pleased with. Mick was so funny. We would die laughing. I loved him. He was so nice. I also played on his record The Tooth Mother. We did a pretty disastrous tour of Italy together, playing 13 shows back-to-back with hardly anyone showing up. But it was fantastic. It didn’t matter that so few people were there. It was just really good fun to play with Mick and we had a close sense of humor with each other. I do miss him. He was a complete one-off. There will never be a bass player like Mick again. When I hear the album now, it brings me straight back to that time.

Sultan Khan, the legendary sarangi player, performs on Sanity & Gravity, as well as several of your other solo projects. Tell me about your interest in working with him.

We found Sultan Khan when Jakko Jakszyk and I had a band with Danny Thompson and Pandit Dinesh called Dizrhythmia. Pandit Dinesh had fantastic access to the whole Indian community of London, and we wanted to find some really interesting Indian singers and instrumentalists. He said, "Oh, I know this incredible guy who plays dilruba and sarangi.” And Sultan Khan was truly one of the best in the world. We got him in a studio, and he was amazing.

So, when I did Sanity & Gravity a little later, I got hold of Sultan Khan and got him in a studio again. During first takes, he would just sing. I was presenting him with jazz chords that were very weird to his ear. They weren’t the way Indian music is constructed. So, he was feeling out the harmonic possibilities. Then we’d do another take and he would play, and it was stunning. He played sarangi like a human voice. The way he would go from note to note, and all those little embellishments were so attractive, and emotionally powerful. Having Sultan Khan and Mick Karn on the same track was something pretty special.

Franco Battiato, the renowned Italian musician, passed away last year. You collaborated with him extensively. What was that like?

What an incredible artist he was. I met him through a mutual friend who lives in the Czech Republic named Saro Cosentino. This also connects back to Dizrhythmia.

Jakko Jakszyk, Danny Thompson, Pandit Dinesh, and I all got invited to play with an Italian singer called Alice. Danny and Dinesh couldn’t do the tour, but Jakko and I went, and we met Saro there. He knew Alice very well. A year-and-a-half later, in 1993, Saro was very involved in the production of one of Franco’s albums named Caffé De La Paix. He invited me and Jakko to come to Real World—Peter Gabriel’s studio—to play on it.

Now, I couldn’t understand a word Franco was singing, but what he did with his singing was very interesting. A lot of people write songs in four-bar chunks. Typically, songs are written in 4/4 and you put the lyrics on them, and wait for the downbeat to come ‘round, and then you sing the next lyric. However, Franco would just sing the lyrics and when he got to the end of the phrase, that’s where he wanted the next downbeat. And then he’d sing another phrase. Italian is a much more flowery language, with much longer words. They don’t fit into the rock and roll 4/4 groove very well. When he sang in Italian, there could be 13, 14, or 18 syllables. And then he’d say “There’s the next downbeat, at the end of that word. I don’t want to wait to catch up with the groove a little later.” So, that was very challenging. I had never worked like that before. I had to write out some very extensive charts.

It was fascinating to work with him. I played on five albums of his. He kept inviting me back. We hit it off and had a good feeling between us, even though we didn’t talk a lot. His English was okay, but my Italian’s terrible. But you get a feeling when you work with another musician that transcends language. We just inspired each other. He liked what I did. I liked what he did.

Franco couldn’t have cared less about being commercial and I liked his attitude. He also had a very good sense of humor, and it was a beautiful thing. He was a very interesting artist, and more people should know about him.

What are your thoughts about the value of music during these complex times?

It has been a very difficult couple of years, but music really is the most incredible form of communication. It’s maybe the most incredible part of human existence in that we can create something that's beyond language. It doesn't matter where in the world you're from or what language you speak. It's a unique connection between the artist and the listener.

It was a religious experience as a child to listen to records with headphones on or go to a friend's house where we sat in the dark listening to a Frank Zappa album. It was really the most amazing thing.
Unfortunately, I feel like music has been very devalued. Perhaps it was a simpler time when I was that age and music meant everything to me. There was very little else to do. It was a world free of modern distractions. There were no video games. There was no Internet. There were no mobile phones. The TV only had three channels. So, music meant everything to me, and it still does.

I worry that young people are just too distracted to really concentrate on music. They’ve got their laptop, iPad, and iPhone. They’re having three conversations simultaneously while they’re on Instagram, TikTok, and playing a video game, all while the TV is on. There might be some music on in the background while they’re multitasking. They’re not focused.

When you put a 30-second clip of something online, it gets a lot more views than something that’s nine-minutes long. Most people can’t be bothered to dedicate nine minutes of their life to something. Maybe my perspective is that of someone from an older generation who grew up feeling he wanted to listen to a nine-minute piece of music with no distractions.

I think that there are still a lot of people in the world for whom music is the most important thing in their life. It gives them hope. It reaches parts of their soul nothing else can. You just put on any record from when you were 15-20 years old and you're right back there. Suddenly, you’re 15 years-old again listening to Miles Davis for the first time, or you’re 18 years-old listening to Earth, Wind & Fire. Music can transport you back to times in your life that were happy and joyous.

I recently thought about Face Value, Phil Collins' first album. I realized I hadn’t listened to it in ages. So, I found it and put it on, and it took me right back to 1981 when I was working on the South Coast of England playing in a band. I just love that album, and it connected me to not only that time, but relationships that I had. It's very hard to quantify in words what music means, how it affects you, and how it gets into your soul. And I hope that the people we reach can find similar hope and connection through music.