Interview: Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree – Do What You Love and the Fans Will Follow

“What I do barely feels like work to me,” says Steven Wilson. “People ask me, ‘Are you a workaholic?’ I respond that to be a workaholic, you’ve got to feel that what you’re doing is work. Making records, that’s not work. It’s fun, isn’t it?”

By any measure, Steven Wilson is one of the busiest musicians working today. In addition to writing, producing and performing with his band Porcupine Tree, he has a steady release schedule of albums by his other projects (solo work, Blackfield, No-man and others). He also produces other artists – most notably Swedish death metal band Opeth – and is in the midst of remixing the vast King Crimson back catalog. He also writes a monthly column in Electronic Musician magazine, and wrote a succinct op-ed piece (“Music Is Not Software; Music Is Art”) in May for the New York Times.

Despite all that activity, Wilson’s primary focus is Porcupine Tree. And Wilson’s songwriting has gone through a number of stylistic phases since the first Porcupine Tree release (the cassette-only Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm in 1989). Early PT sounds leaned in a psychedelic-ambient direction. In those days, Porcupine Tree was simply Wilson recording at home. But over the course of ten-plus studio albums, the band’s distinctive sound has drawn from Beach Boys-influenced pop, progressive rock, and most recently, heavy metal. The group’s last two albums (2007’s Fear of a Blank Planet and 2009’s The Incident) cover a wide stylistic palette, but the group certainly leans in a metallic direction.

The music Steven Wilson chooses to listen to often mirrors (or has an influence on; it’s hard to discern which) where his songwriting will take the band next. So what’s Wilson listening to these days?

“Anything except metal,” Wilson chuckles. “I’m so bored with metal.” He concedes that he goes through “phases, immersing myself in a particular area of music.” But, he says, “I feel like the future [of Porcupine Tree] is going to be a long way from that. I wasn’t being completely flippant: I’m listening to all sorts of things these days. Except metal.”

Wilson suggests that, going forward, he’s most interested in creating music that is “less about songwriting, and more about this idea of music as a story for the ears.” He readily concedes that such a focus has always been evident to some degree in his music, but wants to pursue “a musical continuum that can take the listener on a journey.” He notes that everything he’s currently working on – no less than two or three projects at once – shares one common characteristic. “If anything, the music’s becoming more spacious and less aggressive.”

Wilson has already tipped his hand in this direction on the group’s most recent album. Though it’s broken into fourteen tracks on the CD, The Incident is a single long-form piece of music. “I want to take that idea further,” Wilson states. He’s fascinated by the idea of an album as “an equivalent in some ways to a novel. Although you do get short stories, or short films, most of the important examples in those media are major-length pieces that are telling a story across ninety minutes, or 400 pages.”  He muses, “It seems strange to me that music has lagged behind in terms of embracing the larger form. With,” he quickly clarifies, “a brief exception in the 1970s.”

He characterizes the early 80s rise of MTV, with its emphasis on the three-minute pop song/video, as “almost a throwback. It was as if music was afraid of its own potential.” Wilson believes that there’s a movement afoot to return to the idea of music that’s ambitious in its goals, and he points to the success of bands like Muse and the Mars Volta to support his argument.

“In some ways the internet has liberated bands from having to think about being mainstream, from having to try and be commercial,” he says. “And I like to think that people are getting away from the idea that all they want from their music is a three-minute, hummable pop song.” But those unfamiliar with the music of Porcupine Tree should not take from that the idea that the group creates dense, humorless music bereft of hooks or melody. Every PT album has at least a couple of songs with “Single” potential. On The Incident, two of those songs are “I Drive the Hearse” and “Time Flies,” both tuneful, memorable numbers. On the group’s spring tour, the five-piece Porcupine Tree performs The Incident in its entirety, without breaks, and then added in a few fan favorites from their deep catalog. On the summer tour with Coheed & Cambria, Porcupine Tree took more of a “greatest hits” approach, giving a good overview of their music to an audience not as familiar with their body of work.

Steven Wilson embraces the changes taking place in what used to be called the music industry. “Bands have given up the dream of being the next Led Zeppelin, and are instead focusing on what’s important: the music. And it’s much easier now to find a cult audience through the internet, and to survive by selling music directly to the fans.” Wilson views those changes as fostering music everywhere that has “got more integrity than it did at any other time in the last twenty-five, thirty years.”

An edited version of this feature appeared in the August 18 2010 issue of Mountain Xpress.