Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson on “Closure/Continuation” | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, August 7th, 2022  

Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson on “Closure/Continuation”

“Don’t call it a reunion…”

Jun 24, 2022 Photography by Alex Lake Web Exclusive
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Does Steven Wilson run on Duracell?

“I’m probably busier than ever in my whole career,” Wilson says at the beginning of a Zoom call. It’s a startling statement from someone who’s released so many albums that one imagines Spotify building an entire server room to accommodate his vast discography.

The British musical auteur’s back catalog includes his solo albums through to the pandemic-era release, The Future Bites. Then, too, he’s created stylistically varied side projects and collaborations such as No-Man, Blackfield, I.E.M, Storm Corrosion, Bass Communion, and the recently reactivated group Porcupine Tree. (An exhaustively researched biography, Steven Wilson: Footprints, by Guy Tkach and Peter Sieker includes a thorough guide to the artist’s discography.) Wilson also remixes work by other artists—most recently Lil Nas X and Tears for Fears—into Dolby Atmos immersive sound. When the songwriter isn’t in the studio, he’s playing world tours.

A longtime debate among fans: Does the man ever take a holiday? The answer, according to Wilson’s new memoir Limited Edition of One, is yes. One of the chapters in the book seeks to dispel popular myths about him, including the misconception that he works 24/7. Okay, but he still makes Elon Musk seem like a slacker.

“I’ve got the book, which just came out,” says Wilson. “The Porcupine Tree album. I’m almost finished writing my next solo record. I’m remixing about 10 albums at the moment. And then the family life as well, which is great.”

Over the next half year, Wilson’s calendar will be filled by the promotion and tour for a new album by Porcupine Tree. It’s their first release in 13 years. The group he founded had been his primary focus for the better part of two decades. But, as he candidly admits in Limited Edition of One, vibes within the four-piece began to deteriorate prior to Porcupine Tree’s 2010 show at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Two band members got into an altercation. At the same time, Wilson had been dissatisfied with the band’s 2009 release, The Incident. Stuck in a creative rut, the group was spinning its wheels in the metal-tinged progressive oeuvre it once pioneered. Consequently, Wilson walked away from Porcupine Tree to focus on his musically varied solo career.

In 2018, EONMusic asked Wilson if Porcupine Tree would ever reunite. “Well honestly, I would say zero because I’m just not that kind of person,” said Wilson. “That would seem like a terribly backward step to me. I’m proud of the catalogue, it’s there, it exists, but it’s kind of closed, it’s finished….”

The other band members of Porcupine Tree busied themselves with other pursuits. Drummer Gavin Harrison is a full-time member of two other bands: King Crimson and The Pineapple Thief. Keyboardist Richard Barbieri collaborated on an album with Marillion singer Steve Hogarth and also released a series of EPs plus two albums, Planets + Persona and Under a Spell. Bass player Colin Edwin’s prolific output includes solo albums, numerous collaborations with cloud guitarist Jon Durant, and his band O.R.k. just released a new single, “If You Leave.”

Then, like the protagonist in movies about the mafia or heists, Wilson decided to return to Porcupine Tree for one last job…one last time…to take care of unfinished business. The title of the band’s 11th studio album is a statement to that effect: Closure/Continuation. Turns out, Porcupine Tree had been sporadically recording tracks for quite some time. The downtime of COVID lockdowns spurred Wilson to devote his full attention to completing the album.

The album’s sound is unmistakably that of Porcupine Tree, but with a quarter turn difference. The lineup is now just a trio. Wilson, Barbieri, and Harrison have excluded Edwin from the reunion. The news came as a surprise to fans—and the bass player.

Asked for comment, Edwin responded by email: “We hadn’t fallen out or anything, and were in contact occasionally about various things, reissues mainly, or odd business things, but there had long been no indication or hint of any new band activity, writing sessions or any possibility of reactivation. My band O.R.k toured with Pineapple Thief in 2019, we all got on fine and there was no mention at all from Gavin about any possible new PT stuff, certainly nothing from anyone else. So it was a surprise to me in March 2021, in lockdown, to get an email from Steve telling me there’s a new album and as he’s already played all the bass parts there’s ‘no role for me.’ Soon after that Steve’s lawyer gets in touch. I have had no real contact from anyone since.”

As if to underscore the lineup change, the first sound on the album is the flèche attack of Wilson’s bass lines on “Harridan.” That epic is one of several complex rockers on an album that’s a showcase for Harrison’s astonishing virtuosity behind the kit. For instance, “Rats Return” is math rock that’s as complex as an Einsteinian equation. During the chorus of “Herd Culling,” the guitar riff feels as intense as being trapped inside a nuclear submarine that’s had a core meltdown. The instrumental vortex at the heart of “Chimera’s Wreck” nods to Rush’s “Natural Science.”

There are also pieces that show why Porcupine Tree’s music resists easy genre categorization. The acoustic guitars of “Dignity” are swathed in nanoparticle swirls of Barbieri’s textural keyboards. “Walk the Plank,” featuring an aching vocal performance and magnificent chorus, hews closer to Wilson’s recent electronica solo single “King Ghost” and Barbieri’s enthralling solo work. The ethereal grandeur of “Love in the Past Tense”—one of the essential bonus tracks on the deluxe edition—floats on a chiming figure played by cymbals, keys, and guitars.

Testament to the strength of the new album is that Porcupine Tree will be playing every track on it during what’s being billed as its final tour.

Under the Radar had a conversation with Steven Wilson via Zoom about the new Porcupine Tree album, his book, his upcoming solo record, and other questions he never gets asked.

Stephen Humphries (Under the Radar): I remember years ago, you and I had a conversation about The Police reunion tour. And you said, “I’ve got no interest in reunion tours.” And yet here you are with Porcupine Tree.

Steven Wilson: Yeah, but it’s not a reunion, is it? I mean, firstly, we never broke up. And secondly, we’ve made a new record. For me, a reunion tour is when you get together having broken up and you basically go out and just play your greatest hits, for which is what The Police did, for an audience that are basically nostalgic for what you used to be 30, 40 years before.

We never broke up and we’ve been making this record for the last 10 years. In fact, pretty much since we were in the slipstream of the finishing of the previous tour. So is that a reunion? I don’t think so. It’s no different to Tool coming back after 15 years with their next record. We’ve been quicker than that. [Laughs.]

We’ve been working on this record for a very long time in—this would be an understatement to say it—a fairly low profile way, because nobody knew we were making the record at all. Everyone else assumed that the band didn’t exist. I’d be the first to admit I added fuel to that because I would often tell people to forget Porcupine Tree and it’s not coming back. Because I wanted people to focus on what I was doing at that given moment. But those were white lies because actually I knew we were working on this record and I knew eventually it would come out.

It’s fair to say it’s probably a one-off?

I suspect it will be the last time we’ll tour. I think it’s quite possible we might make another record. In fact, I was speaking with Richard about it. We were in Germany a couple of weeks ago doing promo in Berlin, and somebody asked me that question. I thought, Well, you know what? I think there’s a way forward. A track like “Walk the Plank”—which is one of the last tracks we did—which doesn’t have any guitars on it at all, and kind of reflects the fact that I’ve moved more and more towards electronic music. I wondered about making a Porcupine Tree record where we just focused on keyboards, rather than guitars. It would have to be something different to justify doing it.

But I suspect we probably wouldn’t tour again. I think in my heart, I think this is probably the last round for sure.

So, by working with Gavin and Richard on these new songs and in a more democratic way than before, what did you gain from that? Because you have these restrictions that you don’t have as a solo artist. But, presumably, there’s something that you’d gain from being able to compromise and allow the other two to have more of a say in the songwriting.

The beautiful thing about this at this point in my career is that these two things can coexist. So I have this solo career and it’s established. And because of that, I can now make a record with the old gang. And I feel liberated to not try to control every aspect of it. The answer to your question really is that there are things about the way we’ve made this record that are very different that, to me, justify making it. That’s always been my thing. If you’re going to make another record, what reason does it have to be added to your catalog? If it’s just more of the same, what is the point?

But how do you find a way to stop it from being more of the same? And if we start getting into specifics on this record, firstly, I wrote a lot of the bass guitar jamming with Gavin. Secondly, we wrote pretty much everything—with only one exception—in configurations of two or more people. And that’s completely different to the way any of the previous Porcupine Tree records were made, where I essentially brought 80% of the record to the band and said, “Hey, here’s the new record.” Also, when you add into the equation the fact that the three of us have all done different things in the interim and we’ve come back to the band identity with different influences and different inspirations from having done our own things—whether it’s Gavin working in King Crimson, Richard working on solo projects, with me working with my solo projects or doing the remix work. So we’ve all come back to the table as different musicians with different strings to our bow, as it were. So I think those three things justified for me, the claim for this record to be quintessentially Porcupine Tree, but at the same time, something very fresh from the band that you haven’t heard us do before.

Why was the album created without Colin Edwin?

The simple reason is that when we started making the record back in 2012, myself and Gavin started to work on ideas. I picked up the bass and it wasn’t like, “I’m going to be the bass player on this record.” Colin’s not going to get a look. It wasn’t anything as self-conscious as that. It was simply I think I was already a bit bored with the guitar at that point. So I reached over and I picked up the bass and I started to play the bass line to “Harridan.” We came up with that, that groove in five, which kind of not uncoincidentally opens the record, because I think they straight away there’s a kind of what shall we say, a kind of statement of intent right at the beginning of the record. This is not going to be the same old, same old.

The bedrock of the whole record really became the way I “play bass,” but allied with the fact that I was jamming these grooves with Gavin. So whole chunks of the record, you know, the “Harridan” song was all written—even the chorus was written on bass. “Rats Return,” the big heavy riff actually was written on the bass. “Chimera’s Wreck,” all written on the bass. So these songs which were started way back in 2012, 2013, that became the sort of the foundations of the record were written with me playing bass. And I played bass in a very different way to Colin. I played bass like a guitar player because I am a guitar player. I pick it up and I start playing melodies up the top and I play chords and I play things that “proper bass players” probably wouldn’t think to play. So there was no great conspiracy. We just got to a point where we realized, “Oh, Steven’s going to be the bass player on this record.” From that point on, it was just, “Okay, so it’s the three of us now.”

I would also say that I think, and this is not just me being pragmatic or looking back in hindsight—and no disrespect to Colin, he’s a fantastic player—the creative core of the band was always Gavin, Richard, and myself anyway. If you listen to the sound of the band going back certainly from the In Absentia days onwards, it was Gavin’s approach to drums, his very polyrhythmic technical approach to drums, Richard’s sound design and use of texture and ambiance. Both of those things filtered through my songwriting aesthetic.

We don’t have Colin on the record, but neither do we have anyone else on the record, which is something that you can’t say of any Porcupine Tree record going back a long time. There’s always been guests, whether it’s been string arrangers or guest vocalists or guest guitar solos. There’s no sound on this record that isn’t made by myself, Richard or Gavin. No engineers— actually Paul Stacey helped me a little bit with guitars later on—but apart from that, it was part of the very, very latter stages of the recording and mixing process. But we really just made the record in our own studios. Just the three of us without anyone else knew we were doing it.

This time round, Lasse Hoile doesn’t do any of the artwork. And John Wesley isn’t the touring guitarist. So there’s changes across the whole project.

We’ve upset some people, haven’t we? Yeah, I know. I think there was a very conscious decision between the three of us that if we’re going to come back into the public eye…and do this record, we wanted to freshen sort of everything else up.

I think it was a decision again, you know, let’s try a different visual aesthetic and approach with the design. I’ve always been a big fan of the Designers Republic. I love what Ian [Anderson] did for Aphex Twin and Autechre. So we thought, “Well, why don’t we try someone like him?” Coming off the back of The Future Bites campaign, you can see I’m more interested in that almost high-concept design approach these days. I personally like that more than some of the old approaches. And, you know, ditto with the live band. Let’s get some new, younger, fresher faces in there.

Tell me how you chose guitarist Randy McStine and bassist Nathan Navarro for the touring band.

Gavin found them. I’d never heard of either. But Gavin is kind of the unofficial MD of the band because I think myself and Richard will always defer to Gavin on anything…because he’s by far the best musician of the three of us. So Gavin, I think, had played on one of Randy’s albums. I think he just found Nate playing on Instagram. We had a sort of a rehearsal session with both those guys a few weeks ago, and they’re phenomenal and it sounds amazing. Super nice guys.

On the new Porcupine Tree album, was there a song that just seemed to evolve and expand and maybe sneak up as a dark horse on the album?

Well, not really. You know, people use that word “effortless” quite a lot. I wouldn’t say it was effortless, but…in terms of the writing and the way the tracks kind of came together, it felt very easy. I suppose, partly because there was no pressure on us to deliver a record to a deadline or to a label that had already paid us an advance, etc., etc. That was so liberating. And I can’t imagine we’d ever have circumstances like that ever again. You know, it’s kind of a one off. We wrote a lot more songs or half-developed songs than are on the record. But there’s three more on the bonus disc, which are, which I think are every bit as good as the ones on the record.

I totally agree!

“Harridan” was pretty much finished by 2013. “Of the New Day” was finished pretty much in 2013. “Chimera’s Wreck” was pretty much based on 2013. I mean, okay. I rewrote some lyrics and we re-tracked things. But what you hear on the record was pretty much their way back in 2013. “Walk the Plank” and “Herd Culling” were the last two things to be done.

Those last two are my two favorites on the main album. It’s not as if it’s not as if everyone was running out of petrol towards the end of the creation.

I don’t think we were. I think “Herd Culling” was the one track that we felt was missing from the record. When you actually try to put together a record that kind of works as a journey, as a continuum, as a logical listening experience…you put six or seven together, and you still think to yourself, “Oh, there’s still one aspect missing from it, which is which is not in any of the songs that we’ve got.” I felt there was one song that was missing from the record that would be the core of the record. “Herd Culling” was kind of “written to order” for the record in the sense, oh, we need a song that’s a bit like this, because this is the one aspect that’s missing from the journey. It’s the one song that we kind of wrote as a collective, as a three-way creative collaboration experience.

A lot of vocalists find that their voice changes in middle age, you know, usually losing a bit of the top end and they’re also developing a thicker kind of voice in the middle. Has that been the case for you?

I’m not aware of it, but one of the things everyone is saying is how much my voice sounds stronger and more soulful on this record. It’s that word “soulful” that I am most flattered by, because one of the things I’ve tried to do in my solo career, particularly records like The Future Bites, is to sing in a more soulful, emotional way, using my force, using the falsetto voice a lot more particularly. It’s something I never really did in Porcupine Tree until this record.

I sing more for the sound of the words rather than what I’m saying. And I’ve always liked that about soul music, you know, that old thing where Paul Buchanan from Blue Nile can sing real platitudes, but they really get to your heart. The first three tracks of the first Blue Nile album, the chorus is, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” That’s the core idea, you know? But it doesn’t sound banal and it doesn’t sound like a platitude because it’s a soulful voice that’s singing it. You know, all that hogwash that [Talk Talk’s] Mark Hollis used to sing on albums like Laughing Stock is hogwash if you read off the paper. But the point is the vocalist makes it seem very profound. And I guess I’ve moved a little bit towards that. My lyrics are hogwash, but I sing them in a way that makes you think they mean something more. [Laughs]

When was the last time you listened to a record and it made you cry?

That’s a good question. Have you read my book?

Yes.

There’s a list in there. There’s probably some songs in the list of [my favorite] 100 songs. Let me have a look and remind myself which of these songs…I mean, “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys used to make me cry. Although strangely, it’s not in this list. It’s slightly fallen out of favor with me. Let’s have a look down this list. Okay, John Martyn’s “Spencer the Rover” makes me cry. Do you know that one?

Yes, I have that one.

The song is about a guy who goes a-wandering and leaves his family and his life behind and then comes back one day and realizes that, actually, having done all that, all he wants is what he already had in the first place. That makes me cry. No question. “Bats in the Attic” by King Creosote and Jon Hopkins makes me cry. Oh, the Mark Kozelek and Jimmy Lavalle track, “Somehow the Wonder of Life Prevails,” which makes me absolutely weep. What a track that is. Yeah. That totally gets me. There’s a line in “Katie’s Song” by Red House Painters, which I talk about in the book: “Tomorrow you will be somewhere in London, living with someone and you’ve got someone there to turn to, and that’s more than I can ever give you.” And that is exactly the story of me and my wife, because we met 20 years ago, we didn’t get it together and she went to live in London and married someone else and had children. That line for me is our story, you know, and I still find that very moving for that reason.

When you were writing the book, which parts were most difficult for you because there’s a lot of confessional stuff where you’re quite open and vulnerable and talking about various relationships and things in your life.

It was easy to write in the sense that it came out of the pen very easily. It wasn’t like I had writer’s block or anything. But I understand what your question is. It was the chapter where I basically look through my family history. I think I say in the book, it was as much a surprise to me as it is to anyone, that I have these incredibly dysfunctional aspects to my extended family, which I always protested that I didn’t. I always said, and I really believed, my life is boring. There’s nothing interesting in my life. There’s no dark skeletons. There’s no dysfunction in the family. Then I started to write it and I wrote about my mother’s brother, Leonard—my Uncle Leonard—who lost his job, went back to his apartment, and starved himself to death. I’m writing this and, of course, the first thing I’m thinking is, “Oh, my God. Hand.Cannot.Erase.” I wrote that album about this character, Joyce Carol Vincent, who basically was found in her apartment [dead] and nobody… And yet, here it is in my own history. I’d never made that connection before. That was hard to acknowledge and to write.

The chapter about my dad was hard to write as well. I found the courage to listen to a recording that he made just before he passed away, which I had never been able to face doing before. And I thought, “Well, if I’m going to do it, now’s the time to do it when I’m writing this book.”

As a record collector, what is the Holy Grail item that you’re still searching for?

Well, I used to say a good copy that’s not all crackly of Godley and Creme’s Consequences, but I have now found one copy, which sounds pretty good, and isn’t all beat up. I think to me, the Holy Grail is to discover a new artist and a new catalog to explore. And I actually discovered one last year that I didn’t know anything about: Anthony Braxton. Anthony Braxton is a jazz musician who is as much involved in the world of jazz as he is in serious classical music, and he spans the two worlds. He was in a band called Circle with Chick Corea. So he’s been in the jazz world since the late sixties. But some of his pieces are serious classical compositions, which are like four LP boxes. He’s one of the most prolific [artists] in history. His discography goes to hundreds and hundreds of records. And what I love about it is when you discover an artist like that who does have this amazing back catalog that you can completely get lost in and explore.

What have you been listening to recently?

I love the new Propaganda album. It’s come out in the name of xPropaganda. I think there’s some reason why they are legally not allowed to release it as Propaganda. It’s called The Heart is Strange. Steven Lipson made the record with Claudia [Brücken] and Suzanne [Freytag] from the original band. I quite like the new Arcade Fire album, and that band has never really blown me away. I’ve never quite understood the sort of reverence they’re held in. But I do like the new record. It’s very creative. I still really love the new Tears for Fears record. I really like the new Kendrick Lamar tracks I’ve been hearing. I always like to follow what’s going on in the world of hip-hop. Some of it doesn’t really appeal to me musically. As a producer or as a writer, if you’re going to remain open and curious to the new people pushing the envelope, that’s where it’s happening.

In your list of your 100 favorite songs, I was struck that you included the song “Aqaba” - a former Under the Radar pick for best song of the week—from the latest Shearwater record in there as well.

Yeah, what a beautiful song that is. In fact, at one point I kept saying to [Jonathan [Meiburg of Shearwater], “My book’s coming out soon, Jonathan, are you going to get your album out in time?” It was like people are going to read this list and then go online and try and find this track and then it doesn’t exist. Thankfully they have got the record out. So yeah, the new Shearwater track.

Doing this list of 100 songs is so hard because since I did it, I thought of at least another 100. So, in fact, when the paperback version comes out, I think I’m going to substitute that list of 100 songs for a completely different list of 100 completely different songs. Just to make the point that it’s actually really impossible at the end of the day to [choose].

So, there’s an official Porcupine Tree Tiktok account!

Is there?

I believe so, yes.

Okay. Right. Shows you how plugged in I am to what’s going on there.

You’ve got a solo one, too.

I knew I had a solo one because I made a half-assed attempt to make a couple of things for it years ago. But yeah I didn’t realize Porcupine Tree were. I mean, part of me thinks as you’re saying, that I’m thinking, “Of course we do. You have to these days, don’t you?” So I’m sure the record label will have set that up.

Are your stepdaughters on TikTok? What do you make of it?

I’m an old geezer so, you know, my impression of Tick Tock has certainly historically been 15 second clips of housewives dancing badly in their kitchen and children playing with slime, because that’s largely what my step daughters show me. [Laughs]

The music industry’s very invested in TikTok. What do you make of that?

The one way I’ve tried to look at it, to make myself feel better about it in a way, is that music has always been very good at evolving and changing and developing. And part of that, of course, is that things get left behind and that’s the way it should be. The great era of physical media, the vinyl record and the CD and engaging with music in the form of the album, the 45 minute continuum of music across two sides of a record or single, is but a blip in the history of music, of popular music, and it’s disappearing. It only really has existed since the mid 20th century, and it’s kind of already on the way out. And the way people are engaging with music is changing again. So the way people engaged with music before that, you know, the first half of the 20th century and going back, was to go to concerts. Or they would gather around the family piano and sing songs from sheet music. Now, you and I, because of the era we’ve grown up with, we have incredible nostalgia for the whole notion of listening to music in a dark room for a longer period of time, engaging with a deep level of poring over record sleeves, gatefold records sleeves, lyric sheets. To most people coming up, that’s meaningless in the way that it was meaningless to everyone before the second half of the 20th century.

What rock music did to jazz music in the second half of the 20th century, urban music has now done to rock music. And so it should be. Sometime in the future, something will come along and do the same to urban music. And urban music will become the cult music, the underground music. Right now, it’s the very forefront and center of the mainstream in the way that rock music was for 50 years. It’s a pretty good run, isn’t it?

I’m trying to sort of look at it in a positive way as best I can. It’s amazing that the music continues to evolve and change and the way that we engage with music also continues to evolve or change—even though it doesn’t behoove me in my particular career and my particular way of making music to acknowledge that. But I do anyway.

Do you have a sense of the collaborators that you’d like to work with on your next solo album, Harmony Codex?

There’s one track with Ninet [Tayeb] on it, which is fabulous. She kind of wrote it, and we both duetted on it. So, the usual gang people, people that you will probably mostly recognize from my solo career.

You mentioned there’s going to be a spiritual jazz piece on the album.

That track’s about 11 minutes long called “Invisible Tightrope.” It’s a kind of mixture of spiritual jazz, progressive rock, electronic music, and even a bit of glitchtronica. It’s a real mash up. It’s got a little bit vocal on it, but mostly instrumental. It’s going to be a very diverse record, all over the place, but very sort of couldn’t give a fuck what anyone expects. It’s not that any of my records don’t fit that description, but I think even more so, this record is very indulgent in a good way.

As people get older, they say that a lot of things that matter to them or bother them when they were younger now just don’t seem as important anymore. I’m wondering if that’s true for you, especially with your music career.

Possibly, you know. I mean, part of me still would love to have a big hit record and all that stuff. That will never change. Because I kind of grew up as being in love with the idea of the magic of the pop world and pop mainstream. But increasingly, as the world changes, as the pop industry becomes more and more sort of homogenized, it’s difficult to imagine anyone like me—particularly my age now—breaking through or fitting into that world. But let’s just say that this next record probably isn’t the one that’s going to have much of a shot at that! The Future Bites was the one that I thought might have that going for it. But of course, it came out the worst, worst possible time in my career anyway, to be releasing a record. But such is life, such is life.

But aren’t you possibly on the cusp of having a number one record with this Porcupine Tree album?

Well, it is a possibility. It depends what else comes out of that week. I mean, the number one record is just a nice thing to be able to say. Statistically, it doesn’t really mean much these days. Mogwai had a number one record last year selling about 9,000 copies in the first week, which is less than I sold of The Future Bites when I got to number four. So it’s such a crapshoot in terms of what you’re up against that week. Does it really mean anything anyway? I don’t know. I mean, listen, for the aforementioned reasons, it would be lovely to have a number one….

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

www.porcupinetree.com

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