INTERVIEW: Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson

Porcupine Tree’s ‘The Incident’ is a 55-minute song in 14 parts which occupies an entire disc of the 2-CD album of the same name. Rather than cram as many notes into the recording as possible like many other progressive epics it’s a ponderous, spacious recording full of atmosphere and pensive interludes – though it still contains more than enough crushing riffage to satisfy fans of the edgier side of prog. Thematically, the album examines one topic from several angles and perspectives. I caught up with band founder Steven Wilson to discuss the intricacies of writing such a dense piece, and the inspiration that drove it.

So how does one write what is, in essence, a 55-minute song? “Writing a 55-minute song is very much like writing a novel, which you would approach differently to writing a short story or a collection of single songs,” Wilson says. “It’s a very distinct way of working. When you’re writing a novel you’re really working in a linear way, and the secret is allowing the idea to develop in that linear way, rather than coming up with each detail in a way that’s very fragmented and working then it in to create the finished product. The Incident was very much written from start to finish.” Wilson notes that the band’s current live performances include a full rendition of The Incident, complete with visuals by three filmmakers, each working in a different medium.

In a specific sense, Wilson has previously said the impetus for ‘The Incident’ was passing a fatal car accident and hearing it referred to by attending police simply as ‘an incident.’ But the inspiration grew from there and the theme became much deeper. “I think I was riffing, in a sense on that whole concept of how the media distorts a story,” Wilson says. “And that got me thinking about events from my own life and things I’ve seen. For instance, the very strange thing about 9-11 is that it was very public, in that you could actually watch it happen on TV. That same day there was an earthquake which killed thousands of people, but you didn’t hear too much about it. Meanwhile September 11 was literally unfolding before your eyes on TV. It was very cinematic, in a way, and I think that’s something that speaks to the way that people relate to television. There’s something very sick and twisted about that. You saw a similar thing earlier this year when Michael Jackson died. It became a real-time event, and the whole world was mourning this pop star – who hadn’t made a good album in 15 years!”

I suggest to Wilson that a similar thing happens today with real-time news on TV and online. For instance, it used to be that you’d read the news of Megadeth, Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax appearing together at the Sonicsphere festival in a magazine three months after it was announced. These days, you see it on a music news site the day after you saw it on Twitter and think, ‘Jeez, that’s old news!’ Wilson agrees. “A similar thing has happened with the release date of albums. It used to be that the first day you could hear an album was the release date. You’d line up at the store and it was a big event to get the album at midnight on the day it went on sale, or whatever. Now everyone’s already got it online well in advance of the release date, and the actual release date has just become a formality. I guess I feel a bit nostalgic for actually waiting for a release date, lining up and buying the new Kate Bush album or something like that.”

I suggest to Wilson that we wind down from such heady matters with a quick rundown of his live gear: “I use Paul Reed Smith guitars, Bad Cat amplifiers, a TC Electronics G-System and just a lot of different pedals. I don’t like things to be too complicated with my gear on stage, because the music is complicated enough. I can’t be worrying about this piece of gear or that piece of gear.”

The Incident is out now on Roadrunner.
Photo:  Diana Nitschke

Can’t get enough prog? Click here for my December 2009 interview with John Petrucci from Dream Theater.

Porcupine Tree Australian tour dates:

FRIDAY 5 FEBRUARY
BRISBANE, THE TIVOLI – 18+
www.ticketek.com.au 132 849, Rockinghorse and Kill The Music

SATURDAY 6 FEBRUARY
SYDNEY, ENMORE THEATRE – Lic A/A
www.ticketek.com.au 132 849, Enmore Theatre Box Office 02 9550 3666 & Utopia

SUNDAY 7 FEBRUARY
MELBOURNE, PALACE THEATRE – 18+
www.ticketek.com.au 132 849