PORCUPINE TREE - STRANGE BUT TRUE
It's taken us a while, but finally we get round to a Porcupine Tree article. Having first glowingly mentioned their debut cassette-only release 'Tarquins Seaweed Farm' way back in an early Terrascope, we've followed the band's development via the reviews columns sporadically since then as each new record is released. I'd be the first to admit however that despite strenuous encouragement from certain quarters of the Terrascope readership, I've hesitated until now to endorse Porcupine Tree wholeheartedly within these pages because, well, to put it bluntly, I found their first couple of albums disappointing after the initial euphoria of the superb 'Tarquins Seaweed Farm' cassette and it's second cousin, 'The Nostalgia Factory'. It took me a while to catch up with what they were trying to achieve, and by the time I got there they'd changed so much that we might have well as been talking about a different band!
In the end, I convinced a reluctant Richard Allen (head honcho of Delerium Records) to write the article for us. I have no problem with the fact that, as he is writing about an artist on his own label, he might be accused of bias: I’ve always been a great believer that the person most suited to any particular job should be the person to see it through, and few people care as passionately about Porcupine Tree, or indeed any of the bands on his roster, as Richard does. I’ve also been a great fan of Richard’s writing for quite a while and have mourned the loss of his main outlet, ‘Freakbeat’ magazine, ever since it gave way to the full-time occupation that is the Delerium empire (and emporium) today. This then is as much a celebration of the writer as much as it’s a tribute to the artist. Over to you, Richard:
Being involved as I am with the Delerium label and the band in question does not really give me the qualifications required to conduct an unbiased interview with Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree, however Mr. McMullen being the admirably persistent bugger that he is finally persuaded me to put pen to paper and microphone to mouth to construct the required information. I had thought of using a false name, but after deciding that this would be a rather pathetic way of evading the truth I decided to come clean. OK, so I have everything to gain by saying how great Porcupine Tree are and that you should all go out and spend your money on their CD's now, but I can put my hand on my heart and say that this is a band that are truly excellent and they have spent a great deal of time slogging around the live circuit, fighting the ever aloof UK music press and releasing expensively packaged albums with little commercial potential. I should know since I have been there, and that fact at least gives me some authority with regards to the necessary historical information, which also brings me rather neatly, to the end of this first paragraph of waffle.
Porcupine Tree began almost as a bit of fun in the mid 1980's. Hemel Hempstead resident Steven Wilson, with the help of some school chums, came up with the idea of a fake psychedelic progressive band that had a stupid name, a string of imaginary albums and a line up that consisted of numerous psychedelic pseudonyms. Steve had already recorded with a few local bands (efforts he would now rather forget) and some of these even released demo's and commercially available cassettes, one of which was available as part of Alan Duffy's ‘Acid Tapes’ series. Song titles and lyrics that would later become Porcupine Tree classics such as ‘The Joke’s On You’, ‘Third Eye Surfer’, ‘Small Fish’ and ‘Nine Cats’ germinated as lyrical images during this period. Due to a shared interest in all things Syd Barrett Steve linked up with Alan Duffy (who later ran Imaginary records) and it was Alan who provided Steve with a wealth of positively luminous psychedelic lyrics that he had written over the years. These lyrics became the core of Porcupine Tree's first project, the cassette release ‘Tarquins Seaweed Farm’. Recorded in the mid to late '80's, ‘Tarquins...’ was released in 1990 accompanied with a booklet that related the almost entirely fictional history of Porcupine Tree and the legendary (but sadly fictional) Incredible Expanding Mindfuck. The tape contained a stunning array of progressive / psychedelic sounds and textures that was obviously produced using some very up-to-date equipment. Songs included on the tape were the epic Floyd like ‘Radioactive toy’ (still a live favourite today), the high speed heavily effected psych-pop of ‘Jupiter Island’ and the cosmic prog classic ‘Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape’. It was this tape that Steve sent to a number of fanzines and small labels including Mr. Bevis at Woronzow, Encylopaedia Psychedelica, Freakbeat and Ptolemaic Terrascope. Ptolemaic Terrascope was actually the first publication to review a Porcupine Tree tape, describing ‘Tarquins...’ as “arrangements that teeter on the brink of psych meets progressive pomp” with “a maelstrom of snarling psychedelic sequences” whilst to my eternal embarrassment I wrote a review in Freakbeat of ‘Tarquins...’ and the short-lived ‘Love Death and Mussolini’ tape that praised the general contents but not the “long calculated prog jams”. Anyhow, Ivor Trueman and myself obviously liked the tapes enough to include ‘Linton Samuel Dawson’ on the debut Delerium release, the ‘Psychedelic Psauna’ compilation album which came out in 1991. By the time of the album’s release Steve had withdrawn the short ‘Love Death and Mussolini’ tape and lengthened it to become ‘The Nostalgia Factory’. This also came with a booklet of white lies and mayhem (some of which is still believed today!), and together with ‘Tarquins Seaweed Farm’ was issued on Delerium in individual cassette issues of a couple of hundred copies. These tapes sold so well that it soon became obvious that a full length album would go down extremely well, so Steve began work on a compilation of the two cassettes, remixing and re-recording some of the material and sequencing it to become a smooth running whole. This was released in June 1992 as a CD and a double vinyl album. The CD and gatefold LP cover featured a female figure diving out of the sky and stretched Delerium's finances to the limit. However the album did extremely well and was subsequently favourably reviewed all over Europe and the USA. However, it was the next release that really made an impact. ‘Voyage 34' was a lunatic release combining rave beats with progressive space rock, clocking in at over 30 minutes in length. The distributor was puzzled, the press laughed and the single became an underground classic selling like hot cakes and capturing the mood of the festi-rave generation perfectly (It was later remixed by cult ravers Astralasia). The next album ‘Up The Downstair’ was a logical combination of the first album and ‘Voyage 34’. Combining more electronic based rhythms with sound effects, samples, and melodic songs it also features instrumental space rock jams filled with searing electric guitar work and remains a firm favourite amongst Porc Heads (!) ‘Up The Downstair’ was an album that marked the debut Porcupine Tree appearance of Richard Barbieri and Colin Edwin. Richard had been in the well-known ‘80's band Japan before pursuing a solo career that had made him an acknowledged expert on playing the Prophet V synth. Steve had come to know him as a fan and also through his work with No Man, another project of Steve’s that has a more avant garde pop leaning. Colin was an old school friend who was an extremely able bass player and by late 1993 Porcupine Tree had recruited Chris Maitland, an amazing drummer who added the percussion power house required in a live environment. On December the 4th the band made their live debut at The Nags Head in High Wycombe and the event sold out, drawing people from all over the country. This was just the start of many live performances and tours, complete with Fruit Salad Lights, leading up to the last album ‘The Sky Moves sideways’, which was the first album to involve the whole band and real drums. It's surreal landscape was populated with Floyd-like guitar licks, melancholic vocals, electronic synth and sample mind warps and the trade mark fusions of dance and progressive structures. The ‘Moonloop’ EP single which featured the beautiful non-album ‘Stars Die’ attracted a great deal of radio airplay and it wasn’t long before a US release of the album which included ‘Stars Die’ appeared. Between January 1995 and July 1996 Porcupine Tree played in Belgium, Holland, Italy, Greece and the USA and in addition to numerous headline gigs supported Hawkwind, Gong, Ozric Tentacles and Marillion. It's almost as if the crazy psychedelic tales in the booklets that came with the first tapes were manifesting themselves into reality. Porcupine Tree had mutated from an idea into a physical being, and it certainly amazed all involved as much as it pleased the audiences.
And so, here we are in 1996 looking back over the strange development of Porcupine Tree and a number of burning questions are still begging to be answered. Being the biased git that I am I insisted that Mr. McMullen provide me with some pointed questions to give to Mr. Tree. He obliged and armed with these deadly weapons I cornered Steve....
PT: Around the time of the first Porcupine Tree cassette there was talk, in rather hushed tones, that the man behind Porcupine Tree was a "pop star" doing this uncommercial-sounding stuff for the sheer love of it. Since then, particularly with the release of the same material on ‘Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape’, the enigma has been dropped and Porcupine Tree itself has arguably become a commercial success, earning itself mainstream reviews and radio air play. Did you in fact have an alter-ego before Porcupine Tree and how much do you think success, at least beyond circulating cassettes, has changed the band's sound and early vision?
PT: As you know, the ‘On the Sunday Of Life’ and ‘Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape’ albums were compiled from the two cassettes that were released in 1990 and 1991. However, this in itself is slightly misleading since the cassettes themselves were compiled from a mighty reservoir of recordings I had built up over a period of about five years. Most of the music was recorded for my own and my friends’ own amusement and most of it was quite frankly awful and will remain in my archives under lock and key! When I came to compile the ‘On The Sunday Of Life’ album I was in the fortunate position of being able to release an album which was not only the best of that material but also richly varied, since over a five year period many different styles and approaches were tried and abused. This eclecticism is probably why the album remains some people’s favourite - mine included. Following this generally well received release, I was in a position to explore any number of the possible future directions suggested by the album. But the next release was ‘Voyage 34’ which didn’t really relate to anything on the album. It was still psychedelic/progressive but it also had elements of modern ambient trance music. So, it was after recording this that I realised that there was the potential to do something quite new with progressive music, by combining it with far more contemporary technology and sounds. But that wasn’t the only reason I went further in to a specific direction; I also wanted the albums to hang together more and therefore certain styles had to be set aside in favour of others, for reasons of context. So the last two albums have been a development of some of the more spacious song writing of the first album with a more conscious attempt to use modern technology. I didn't want to make albums which could be dismissed as nostalgia trips, of which the first album could be accused, but the last album ‘The Sky Moves Sideways’ really closed one chapter of Porcupine Tree and there is no reason to suppose that future Porcupine Tree music will not develop some of the other styles explored early on - in fact the forthcoming album ‘Signify’ may include a track which is a direct descendant of the space pop on the first album, for example, ‘Jupiter Island’ or ‘Linton Samuel Dawson’.
Does that mean you're heading in a more commercial direction?
I don’t know what your perception of what is commercial and what is uncommercial but the first album had more air play than anything else, with the exception of the ‘Stars Die’ single - tracks like ‘Nine Cats’, ‘The Nostalgia Factory’ and ‘Linton Samuel Dawson’ are regarded as some of the most commercial things I have done - possibly coming down to the simple fact that they are short songs as opposed to long instrumentals. But my own perception of my releases since the early stuff has been of increasingly uncommercial gestures such as releasing a single containing a 30 minute instrumental about LSD and making the main focus of the last album a 37 minute mostly instrumental suite! These recordings have not received any air play and I would suggest that the reason that the following and the profile has built is because of the uncompromising nature of the catalogue, not because it has become more commercial, as the opposite is true. However, I think I know what you are getting at - a certain tastefulness crept in to the production which wasn't there before, which has made the music more palatable for certain people - I do like my albums to sound well produced and at times this has made parts of them a little overcooked and ponderous... I'm well aware of this and the next album will in many ways break with the tradition of ‘Up the Downstair’ and ‘The Sky Moves Sideways’ by being much less spacious and textural - it's got more songs, but it's also harder and stranger. Things that sound too close to the Porcupine Tree of old are being relegated to B-sides.
On the early records, the Imaginary Mr. Alan Duffy wrote lyrics for Porcupine Tree's music. How did that come about, as he wasn't previously known as a lyricist, at least not to my knowledge. When and why did the collaboration cease and what, if any, difference has it made?
Alan sent the lyrics to me sometime around 1982 - 1985, before he started his record label. I was still at school but recording stuff on a home made 4 track and sending the odd cassette out to the wide world. One of the more peculiar cassettes I made received a favourable review in Sounds and Alan sent for a copy and liked it and began to correspond with me, sending me lyrics. At the time I couldn't really do justice to the kind of psychedelic soundscapes that I think he imagined, which is why I pulled the lyrics out again when I started writing stuff like ‘Jupiter Island’ in the late eighties. They were just too perfect. I used up my stock of Alan’s lyrics about half way through ‘Up the Downstair’ and as far as I know Alan hasn't written any since.
How much of a band is Porcupine Tree and, how much of it is your singular vision and can you tell us bit about some of the other musicians that have passed through or contributed to Porcupine Tree’s music?
For the first two albums and the ‘Voyage 34' single, Porcupine Tree was Steven Wilson and Steven Wilson was Porcupine Tree. My friend Malcolm Stocks appeared on certain tracks on the first album, and on the ‘Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape’ collection. He can't really play that well - he won't mind me saying so! - but he adds a certain bizarre flavour to whatever he contributes to. Malcolm has been important to Porcupine Tree in other ways, particularly early on, because a lot of the early tracks were recorded for his amusement only - he also helped me invent the fictional history printed with the cassette releases. In fact at one stage we were going to make the Incredible Expanding Mindfuck his project and record some albums under that name with him on vocals and guitar.
Is the current line-up permanent and is this the band that plays live?
Colin Edwin, Richard Barbieri and his wife Suzanne all made contributions to one track each on ‘Up the Downstair’. Colin and Richard, along with Chris Maitland, became the live band for performance shortly afterwards. Things went well and they all made much greater contributions to ‘The Sky Moves Sideways’, such that I decided to bill Porcupine Tree as a band on the sleeve for the first time, thus dropping my own anonymity in the process. For the new album, ‘Signify’, Porcupine Tree has become a band in the true sense, with all four members performing on all tracks, as well as contributing ideas relating to all other creative aspects of the band, although I will probably continue to write most of the material as well as producing the album.
Back in the ‘70's, 6th formers would gather in darkened bedrooms and dorms to enjoy trenchant discussions about the portents contained in the grooves of ‘Dark Side of The Moon’ whilst stoned hippies with pixie fixations would talk reverently about Syd's Floyd of yore. Twenty years on, the stoned hippies with pixie fixations are still stoned hippies with pixie fixations and the 6th formers have gone on to become accountants and city analysts. Porcupine Tree's music, for me, veers more towards Side Floyd than Syd Floyd, so what I am getting at is what kind of audience is Porcupine Tree aimed at? Ravers, dancers, hippies, techno-freaks... those of a progressive bent?
I think music in the mid-Nineties is more open than it has been for a long time. Regardless of your opinion of bands such as Oasis, Portishead and Nirvana, they have all appealed to a massively diverse audience whilst essentially playing what was once considered genre oriented music. It's possible that a band playing a high quality album based progressive/experimental music will cross over to an audience that includes all of the types of music lovers you mentioned, in much the same way that ‘Dark Side of The Moon’ did. In the Nineties this doesn't seem to require any compromise. It probably won't be Porcupine Tree, but as long as we are making albums that we like, we will want as many people as possible to at least have the opportunity to hear the music. Quite honestly we, and Delerium, all lose too much money on Porcupine Tree to do it for any other reason than because we like doing it. Besides, for me the expectation of existing fans has always been a more important motivation than appealing to new ones.
There's been some interesting names credited on the album sleeves. We've had dedicated to the spirit of Orson Wells, Nick Drake, Miles Davis - and probably others too. Can you explain the reasons for all or each?
All three of the dedications have been to individuals who tried to work within the system to produce something different that might change the system, with varying degrees of success. I have always admired these people more than those who choose the easier paths of adapting to the system or operating outside of the system completely. Of course, this is less true of Nick Drake, but his work has a similar honesty and beauty that I aspire to.
I've also noticed that the albums are usually shown as having been "Programmed, produced and performed..." or sometimes "produced, recorded and mixed". I suppose I'm old fashioned and I like to think that one of the most important elements of rock music is its performance, and yet these words suggest that the actual performance is either relegated to third place or dispensed with altogether. What percentage of Porcupine Tree's music is "performed" and what percentage is sampled or artificially produced in some way - ignoring for now the fact that mixing can itself be considered a performance?
Well, we're trifling with words here - maybe I just thought one combination sounded more poetic than another! Everything on Porcupine Tree’s albums are performed by live musicians - even samples have to be programmed or triggered by someone with a musical sense. It really depends what you mean by artificially produced. Are keyboards artificial sounds? The guitars, bass and vocals are always performed. That really only leaves the drums, which were programmed on early albums out of necessity, but are now played live by Chris. The occasional use of samples such as voice-overs, exotic instruments such as tambour, flute etc. and the odd breakbeat are all pretty easy to spot I would think.
In what way do the live shows differ from the albums? Should audiences expect to hear the album tracks reproduced note for note or improvised upon, and are they going to want to sit down and listen to the music or wiggle their bums and wig out?
The music live does incorporate a lot of improvisation - tracks like ‘Radioactive Toy’ and ‘Moonloop’ can drastically vary in length from night to night. Also, some tracks have been partly rewritten and/or rearranged to work in a live context and therefore differ substantially from the recorded versions. But our audiences tend to vary. In some places they go bananas, jump up and down and cheer every solo - Glasgow, Rome and Athens spring to mind - while other audiences just sit and listen. Generally as well the live performance is much heavier than on the albums and in some cases our fans prefer us live than on record.
Are Porcupine Tree happiest playing in an intimate environment, in a large hall, at a festival or are they ultimately aiming for the stadium?
Well we’ve had great gigs and shit gigs in all of the environments you mention - except stadiums which we haven't done just yet! Some people say that our music suits larger settings, particularly from a visual point of view since we often use a large light-show which looks a bit pathetic in a pub! But I personally prefer to see live music in an intimate setting. Watching a band play in a stadium just bores me to death.
How satisfied are you with the way Delerium has marketed, promoted and distributed Porcupine Tree to date and how closely do Porcupine Tree work with Delerium to market their music.? Are you involved from the album design stage upwards or do you leave it to them, knowing you can trust them to do a decent job of it?
I’ve worked very closely with Delerium on all aspects of Porcupine Tree - ideas have come from both sides really. It has worked very well since Delerium have grown in size and experience at roughly the same rate as the band have increased in profile, so we've both been learning together at each stage.
Finally, are Porcupine Tree going to stay with Delerium for the foreseeable future or fall prey to a major corporation? (I can't believe I'm asking this stuff! - R.)
We have talked with Delerium about the prospect of a major label, since it’s becoming an issue now, particularly as the band are losing money in direct proportion to the sales - ie more promotion, more gigs, chartered helicopters and bags of cocaine. Joke! But, we have agreed that we will only consider an offer seriously if Delerium could still be in control of the day to day running of the band. In other words, if a major label want to spend some money on the band that’s fine, but I wouldn’t trust anyone else to make the right artistic or financial decisions.
Well, on that worrying note I think that just about completes the story to date, odd as it may seem. The new album ‘Signify’ is in the can, following from the recently released single ‘Waiting’, and you should be able to find corresponding reviews in this or the next Ptolemaic Terrascope. The band will be on tour later in 1996 in Europe and if things go well will release more experimental sounds in 1997 and develop the full band sound further, which promises to be pretty exciting prospect. Strange but true....
Written, produced and directed by Richard Allen
Thanks to Phil McMullen for supplying the large trumpet.
Editor’s endpiece: There was some blurring of Richard’s handwriting at the end there - the word he used might actually have been “crumpet”, but on the eve of his wedding I thought it best to use some discretion. Anyway, to the threatened reviews. ‘Waiting’ runs to 19 minutes and consists of three tracks, or two given that the first two “phases” are parts of the same title track. The first is a guitar-led tab of psycho candy with voice-over by Steve, the second a cosmic percussive instrumental with some superb guitar work. Both appear on ‘Signify’, the latter indeed being one of the stronger cuts on the whole album - it’s unsurprising therefore that it was chosen for a representative single. The non-album track ‘The Sound of No-One Listening’ is a classic soundscape complete with huge washes of keyboards and sampled radio broadcasts - excellent stuff. ‘Signify’ itself is, as Steve mentioned above, less of a “spacious” album than we’ve come to expect from earlier works, and all credit to the band for concentrating on the songwriting - it certainly pays dividends here with several of the shorter numbers just begging for radio airplay, the echoing acoustics of ‘Every Home is Wired’, a song with a superb instrumental closing passage which will probably get faded out by DJs on the wireless and therefore demands to be heard in the comfort of your own CD player (or “cup holder”, as the latest in-joke in computer circles has it); anyway, that and the riff-laden title track itself being two of the strongest. Ironically however it’s two of the extended pieces on the album which immediately grabbed my attention: ‘Intermediate Jesus’ is a sprightly piece of cosmic debris which features some high octane guitar work and imaginative piano filigrees layered underneath it, and the closing ‘Dark Matter’ is a brilliant combination of everything Porcupine Tree are lauded for: melodic close harmony work, effective guitar work, clever electronic effects and a genuinely progressive song construction which nods gently in the Pink Floyd direction but never threatens to become overblown. It’s my favourite Porcupine Tree cut since ‘The Sky Moves Sideways (Phase One)’, for whatever that’s worth. On the negative side, ‘Idiot Prayer’ features a tiresome drum beat and excessive use of the voice-over and ‘“Light Mass Prayer”’ is a failed attempt at an electronic ‘Gaudete’ for the ‘90s. But for all that, ‘Signify’ remains arguably the strongest Porcupine Tree album to date and one which should win them the mainstream attention they’ve been deserving for so long.