A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME,
SPACE, AND PORCUPINE TREE
An interview with the New Progressive
Rock band Porcupine Tree, about why
Pink Floyd are obsolete, the fine art of sampling,
the true meaning of Prog-Rock… and Japan
‘I think what we’re doing is actually very brave’ volunteers Steven Wilson. He’s an incredibly bleached-out white. His long blonde hair tied back in a blue sweatband. The only darknesses are the sleep-deprivation circles beneath his pale blue eyes. He’s of a paleness Fantasy readers might associate with Michael Moorcock’s albino sorcerer Elric of Melniboné. He’s pale in the way that Blues devotees might call whiter-than-white guitarist Johnny Winter pale. Or perhaps it’s just the unhealthy lighting here in the Leeds ‘Cockpit’ dressing room?
Steven is sat forward on the black battered couch to emphasise that ‘Porcupine Tree is significantly more exciting and on the cutting edge now than – say, what Pink Floyd churn out these days, yet they sell millions of records. So why the hell shouldn’t Porcupine Tree be available to the same people who are out there now buying their records…?’
At that moment the door slams with the alarming abruptness of an amplified Motown handclap. A Roadie called Jasper with an ‘Ozric Tentacles’ T-shirt trails curly leads and jack-plugs through the interview space.
‘Perhaps we should be sampling THAT’ Steven grins, hooking one leg over the couch-arm. ‘We could make an album out of this.’
This is the man who once told journalist Dave Simpson ‘our music has roots in seventies Progressive, but takes on recent developments such as sampling and ambient trance too… my mission is to give Prog Rock a good name and drag it into the nineties’ (‘Melody Maker’, 12 November 1994). Progressive Rock? Isn’t that Ozric Tentacles, Ship of Fools, Rustic Hinge, quasi-Roger Dean CD sleeves? Boring over-extended self-indulgence? Some comparisons are just too hard to bear – and listening to the seductive soundscapes flooding their current album – ‘The Sky Moves Sideways’ (January 1995, Delerium Records DELEC CD 028), Pink Floyd are the obvious one. “The Moon Touches Your Shoulder” begins like an acoustic Floydian “Us And Them”, accelerating through snatched samples of manic orchestration and huge choirs, leading directly into the brief instrumental “Prepare Yourself” with echoplexed guitar-hero extravagance. Porcupine Tree might avoid either Syd Barrett’s dotty whimsy or Roger Waters’ depressive paranoia, preferring poetically-stoned lyrical abstraction which steps ‘right off the map’.
But Dry Ice & Flying Pigs? Naw. You can’t teach a new dog old tricks!
‘To me, progressive bands are bands that you wouldn’t normally think of as progressive. People who are experimenting with textures and musical styles, anybody attuned to that can be regarded as progressive in the TRUE sense of the word, rather than in the accepted clichéd sense. Music can be ANYTHING. Some pieces by such classical composers as Steve Reich or Philip Glass take forty, fifty or sixty minutes to develop. I don’t see why Rock music should be any different. Music is a wonderfully rich and varied tapestry of sound, textures and inspiration.’
But the commercial element is not unimportant? ‘It’s not unimportant’ Steven confirms. ‘There can’t be many musicians who feel that what they do is very important, but at the same time don’t care if the audience out there feel the same. If you believe something is special then you want EVERYBODY to hear it. Every time we put a record out it does better than the last one. It hasn’t been, like, a spectacular quantum leap into the stratosphere! Yet – but it has been a steady word-of-mouth thing.’
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Steven birthed Porcupine Tree in 1985 as a one-man multi-instrumentalist project; ‘as technology improves there’s less and less reason to spend a fortune on commercial studios. I started collecting studio equipment as soon as I was earning money.’ The first CD/ double-album – ‘On The Sunday Of Life’ (May 1992), drew from previous cult cassette-only releases issued in that solo one-man form (‘Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm’ 1989, and ‘The Nostalgia Factory’ 1991). CD single “Voyage 34” followed, and charted – a half-hour fusion of ambient acid textures enveloped in staggering space-Rock, shot through with a neat LSD motif, then remixed by studio Trip-Hop demons Astralasia. ‘Getting radio play for eighteen-nineteen-minute tracks, and for ANYTHING that doesn’t have a strict dancebeat, is very difficult’ he admits. But Mark Radcliffe played Porcupine Tree. And as the band multiplied into a four-piece line-up for live – and later, recording work, two Radio One sessions took them to wider audiences.
‘The Sky Moves Sideways’ works well beyond all previous parameters. It’s so up to date it’s already coming back from tomorrow. ‘Luckily I’ve been able to find three of the best musicians in the business’ he grins, ‘and in future it will be a case of continuing to make records, but with the band involved even more in the recording process… and in touring.’
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‘That’s TOO good. Don’t spoil it!’ yells dread drummer Chris Maitland behind his explosions of hair. The soundcheck rimshots ricochet around the cavernous emptiness of the Leeds ‘Cockpit’, placing beats into the mix like the bubblegum your fingers stumble upon, placed rebelliously beneath schooldesks by those imprisoned to boring academia. Fruit Salad lights crawl in spectrums of colour around Porcupine Tree. Switterations of keyboards ripple, conjuring spiral cavortings that burn where dolphin-headed women spit fire in tunnels beneath the oceans of Saturn.
‘I want a nice sort of R-O-L-L-I-N-G delay’ instructs Steven. He gets it. Live, the music ignites with new momentum and monstrously trippy energies.
Later, heading back from the soundcheck towards the dressing room I enquire after the group’s keyboardist Richard Barbieri, formerly a member of pioneering New Romantic chart ikons Japan. ‘Do you know him?’ asks Steven abruptly.
No. But I’ve seen him once or thrice on ‘Top Of The Pops’. ‘Don’t say that’ he warns. ‘Whatever you do, don’t say that!’
He’s sensitive about questions concerning Japan? ‘Er… no.’ A pause. ‘That’s just a joke.’
Japan’s biggest heavenly Pop hit – “Ghosts”, reached no.5 in March 1982, beaten to the top spot by Goombay Dance Band’s “Seven Tears”, Bucks Fizz and Chas & Dave! With huge stadium tours and massive, if sensitively arty albums – ‘Tin Drum’ (1981), ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ (1980), the live ‘Oil On Canvas’ (1983) and beyond, there was a string of big singles too. A track recorded in 1980 – “I Second That Emotion”, failed to chart first time around, but later, when the New Romantic thing came along feeding off the early effete Japan postures, it was re-issued, and hit no.9.
Richard Barbieri head-butts all your expectations. Mention the aftermath of Japan, and a slow smile overspreads his face. ‘Yes. I found out that over the past seven years I haven’t been making enough music. I haven’t been INVOLVED in music enough. And it suddenly became very important to me. After all – I AM a musician. I SHOULD be doing it all the time. I SHOULD be involved in things.’
Then, ‘Steven’s got another project, a band called Noman’ he explains carefully. ‘It’s basically himself and a singer (they record for One Little Indian, with one track remixed by Colin Angus of Shamen). And some time after Japan finished we – that’s Mick (Karn), Steve (Jansen, Japan’s sax player and drummer respectively) and myself were invited to go see a Noman showcase. They wanted to put together a group, for touring purposes initially, but also for recording. And we were really impressed with Noman. We don’t often get asked to do things, as a kind-of rhythm section, so it was appealing that we’d still be playing together, but within another context. That’s how it began. Then Steven’s enthusiasm for what he’s doing kind-of rubbed off on me a bit. So I got more involved. The Porcupine Tree thing evolved and progressed from there. Porcupine Tree is very natural for me to work within. It provides a certain amount of freedom, but it doesn’t impose the responsibility on me that I had with my other projects where I had to work out the direction and overall sound, the ‘what’s this and the what’s that’ of it. I can just kind-of be a pawn really. That’s quite appealing. Of course…’ a wary glance around the surrounding chaos ‘…it DOES entail touring around England. But it’s as important doing a good gig here as doing a good gig anywhere else. At the moment, THIS is where we’re at with this group. And this kind of tour is a bit of a learning experience. It’s a way of gauging what we want to do in the future, and what kind of audience is out there. Porcupine Tree is getting better and better on stage. A lot of the tracks on the album become more evolved through the shared contributions of everybody when we play live.’
The gig will commence at midnight. While we wait, Chris Maitland (drums, percussion, hum-wah) and Colin Edwin (fretless bass guitar) sit across the debris and the moveable feast from us. So far the dialogue has neatly sidestepped them. ‘We’re used to that ‘ smiles Colin amiably.
‘Next time the group do an interview’ announces Steven, ‘you two can do it ALL!’
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“Moonloop” – title track of a UK Indie Top Ten EP, initially orbits a simple nagging guitar riff that sticks in you head as persistently as burrs, it orbits Orb as well as the Floyd. Then there’s a sampled Luna EVA while that spinal riff builds to epic proportions fed through demonic effect pedals.
‘We had a few hours left in the studio one afternoon, and just improvised. It was quite natural the way it came together’ shrugs Steven dismissively. ‘So “Moonloop” is basically a forty-minute studio improvisation which we subsequently cut up, stripped down, built up again, and then put together in the way you hear it on the album. About ten to twelve minutes of it is an almost completely unadulterated untouched chunk of improvisation. While the closing section consists of the drums from another session – just the drums, I stripped everything else out to get a new piece of music from it. Yes, I’m very fond of that track. It was actually the last thing we recorded for the album. And in a way I see it almost as a pointer to the future. To the next album…’
Shine On You Crazy… Porcupine Tree…
SELECT PORCUPINE TREE DISCOGRAPHY
‘On The Sunday Of Life’ (CD/ Double vinyl LP, 1992) tracks drawn from cassettes ‘Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm’ and ‘Nostalgia Factory’
“Voyage 34 Phase One” c/w “Phase Two” (Twelve-inch/ CD single, 1992)
‘Up The Downstair’ (CD/ LP, June 1993)
“Voyage 34 Phase Three” c/w “Phase Four” (Twelve-inch single, Astralasia mix) no.19 on ‘New Musical Express’ Indie chart 18 December 1993
“Moonloop” (CD single/ Twelve-inch EP, 1994)
‘The Sky Moves Sideways’ (CD, Delec CD028) no.15 on ‘Music Week’ Indie album chart