Steve Wilson Interview of Porcupine Tree

So I was sitting there engaged in what now seems to be the typical weekend routine, I on my computer working while my girlfriend sits behind me playing video games on another, when she turns to me and says, "What are you listening to?"

"It's the new Porcupine Tree I was telling you about," I reply.

"Hmmm... I like it."

And just like that, they have another fan. I've been telling everyone I know about this album since I first heard it when preparing for this interview, and now I'm telling you.

I've been familiar with the name Steven Wilson for quite some time. I listen to a lot of progressive rock/metal and many of the bands I consider my favorites throw his name around. At some point in the past I sought out a few tracks on the Internet, and it didn't quite grab me, but having heard this one, I'm definitely going to go back and listen to them again.

The album easily ranks as one of the best of 2002 (Editor's Note: In Absentia was released Sept 24, 2002 by Lava/Atlantic Records, the group's major label debut after numerous indie releases.) and it's hard to believe I hadn't heard it before. I can't recall the last time I've been so excited by a disc and I've listened to it at least once a day since it first made its way into my player.

I've been describing it as Pink Floyd meets Soundgarden. Not "Black Hole Sun" era Soundgarden, but Badmotorfinger/Louder Than Love Soundgarden, the heavy stuff. You say grunge, I say metal. Soundgarden was not even in the same realm as those whiny crooners in Pearl Jam and Nirvana. They even had a damn good Sabbath cover on their double-disc Badmotorfinger release. And for those of you who are fans of Audioslave, which for the most part sounds like bad songs from Soundgarden's distant past, you owe it to yourself to check out the good stuff, but I digress.

So anyway, as I was saying, the Porcupine Tree is incredible. Wilson says that producing is probably his favorite thing to do, and it shows. His recordings feature layer after layer; everything seems intentional. The production is to die for, like dessert for the ears. And I need to qualify that. It's not like a Cadbury cream egg, which is sweet for the sake of being sweet. It's like an old well-crafted staple of confectionary perfection, like Grandma's hot apple pie with ice cream. It's got everything, the nice smooth ice cream, the hot apples, and the crispy crust. There's something in there for everyone.

Some of you might remember the last article I did, the interview with Opeth. It was through them that I first heard of Porcupine Tree. I heard they were working with Wilson to produce their album Blackwater Park. After its release I could tell they had brought in a new influence as it sounded noticeably richer than their previous efforts. It was still very much Opeth, but it seemed thicker, essentially more produced. Now, having heard Wilson's efforts it's clear that the influence worked both ways. I bring this up to encourage fans of either band to seek the other. And now, without further adieu, I bring you Porcupine Tree: How would you describe your sound to new listeners? What would you say to encourage them to listen to the album?

Steven Wilson: I would try to describe that what Porcupine Tree does is very much trying to bring back the album as an art form. So, if you're tired of going out and buying records where you get 75 minutes of the same thing, or you're tired of records that just sound like it's ten attempts to write the big hit single, then Porcupine Tree is the band for you. Because this music, this album, is very much is conceived as a whole. It has everything on it, from metal riffs to ambient, to great pop melodies, and everything in between, and it all hangs together, and it all sounds of a whole. And I suppose the way I would describe the band is sophisticated rock music, intellectual rock music, rock music for the head as well as the heart. I mean anyone that's ever enjoyed The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, you know, these are the kind of records that to me In Absentia is in the tradition of. Records that hang together as a whole, that have a kind of intelligent approach to making rock and pop music. This album sounds different than your previous efforts. Do you feel it's crossed any new boundaries?

Wilson: Well, I think that one of the reasons this album has gone down so much better in America than any of the previous albums is that it's actually quite simple. It's much more of a rock album, it's got a lot more heavy guitar on it. And I think before, our music tended to be more kind of contemplative, more kind of ethereal, atmospheric, and some people, when they hear that, just don't have the time or the concentration, or it just doesn't connect with them for whatever reason. But this record, one thing I found is there's just a few riffs on this record that really grab people's attention, and tend to make them listen, and then listen beyond the heavy riffs at the other stuff that's going on as well. A classic example would be the very beginning of the record, the first riff that kicks in on "Blackest Eyes" is something that does tend to have that "wow" factor, if you like. So my personal theory with this record is that it is the heavy rock, the more metallic aspect that has made it connect with more people. Is that same thing happening in Europe as well, or is the album mainly picking up more new fans in the United States?

Wilson: It seems to be handling particularly in America and Germany. I think both countries very much have a very great tradition of rock music, and I think that's probably why it's having the most effect there. Other places, you know, the heavy aspect hasn't gone down so well, and in places like Italy for example, they prefer that more kind of ethereal approach. But you know, I'm happy about that, I think it's important to the band to be always evolving anyway, and hey, America and Germany are the two biggest markets on the face of the planet so I'm not complaining [laughs]. I understand you were just on tour here in the States. How did that go?

Wilson: Yeah we did a big tour through October and November (2002), it was very good. I mean, it was still very early after the album had been released so we were still playing fairly small clubs, but very gradually beginning to see the audience really beginning to build up. Even from the beginning to the end of the tour we noticed the crowds getting bigger and younger people coming. And those really are the things that you notice when your music starts to get played on the radio and you start to get on MTV a little bit, you notice that you get a younger audience. I think before that, we tended to have more of the kind of musical obsessives who would be the people that came to our shows, because those are the kind of people that take the time to search the Internet or to check out music in the record stores and actually LOOK for the music they want to hear. Most people tend to wait for the music to come to them. So it was definitely a sign that we were beginning to reach people through radio and through the Internet and through MTV, that we were beginning to get younger people in the audiences, people who'd never heard the band before. I'm really into progressive metal, and actually did an interview with Opeth last month, so I've been familiar with your name for a long time. Actually, many of the progressive metal and progressive rock bands that I listen to, they all mention you, you're very highly regarded in the circle. Do you feel like working with Opeth has helped influence the rock angle in your own music, or is there something else in your life that is inspiring you to do more of the heavier stuff?

Wilson: Well it wasn't necessarily working with Opeth so much, I think this was a chicken and egg thing here, as we say in England, because working with Opeth was kind of a consequence of the fact that I was already listening to and immersing myself much more in heavy music. I don't think I would have come across Opeth myself if I wasn't already listening to that kind of music, and being inspired by that kind of music. I will be the first to admit that having worked with Opeth definitely had an effect on my writing and seeing how those guys worked, but I was already very much finding myself listening to a lot more of that music. And really the only explanation I can give for that is that I'm still very curious about music. I'm in my 30s now but I'm still searching all the time for new music, I'm very curious and fascinated by new music and I just stumbled across this whole group of bands that I hadn't come across before that blew me away. And they all tended to be working in the metal thing. Very ambitious music, very much about the musicianship, the quality of musicianship, the quality of the production, and very much about the album, not about the single... and those are all things that I admired in any music, let alone metal music. And I just discovered a few bands around that time, and I've always found that with my own writing it very occasionally needs some kind of stimulus to renew itself, if you like. It needs some new element to keep it fresh, and it's not always music, sometimes it's film, sometimes it's a book, sometimes it's something that's happening in one of my relationships, or something that's happening in the world, or whatever. There's always something, a catalyst that kind of sets you off down a new musical path. And definitely for In Absentia it was this whole kind of metal underground thing that I discovered around the time. Who are some of the bands in particular that you've been listening to?

Wilson: Mainly it came down to three or four that really impressed me a lot. Opeth was one, Meshuggah was another, both Swedish of course. There was a British band called Esoteric actually - I don't know if you've ever come across them - which is the most extreme doom rock I've ever heard in my life. I mean people talk a lot about doom bands like Cathedral and Neurosis, and these guys just wipe the floor with them. They're SO miserable and SO depressing. You have to check it out, it's UNBELIEVABLY miserable music, I really got into their music a lot. Um, what else? There was Dillenger Escape Plan, I really liked them a lot. Neurosis I really like a lot... a lot of the bands on the Relapse label, I'm sure you know Relapse, the American label? A lot of those bands. But the two bands I actually thank on the record because they were so influential really, is Meshuggah and Opeth. I actually thanked them on the record because they were so kind of instrumental (pardon the pun) in the musical direction the album took. It's interesting that you mention that because I know you have a lot to do with the production of Opeth's Blackwater Park album, and after listening to this I can totally see your influence on them as well. There are a lot of similarities, primarily production-wise, but the vocals on this album are amazing, and I can definitely see the influence that you gave to Opeth in that area. How did that relationship come about?

Wilson: They were fans already of mine, and I didn't know them. I basically discovered their music through a French journalist who one day I was telling about my love of some of the metal stuff I'd discovered, and he actually recommended Opeth and I went out and bought the Still Life album. But when he told me about them he said, "Oh and by the way, they're huge fans of yours, and here's the singer's email address."

So when I got the record I absolutely loved it and I just dropped Mike an email to say "I bought your record and really love it, I hear you like my stuff too and just wanted to touch bases with you." And I got an email back saying "Great, I've been trying to get a hold of you, we want you to produce our record," and it was literally as simple as that. Just a couple of email exchanges and I was in the studio with them. The timing worked out and it was really sort of a good opportunity for me to learn a little bit more about how those guys make those records, how they get some of the guitar sounds and stuff. It was very simple, it was just mutual admiration I guess, which in some ways is always the best way for musical collaborations to be initiated, is through mutual admiration. So expanding on that, what is your favorite part of the musical process? Was the Opeth album the first you'd produced?

Wilson: No, I produce a lot of albums, I don't get as much time as I used to now to produce records but I've produced a lot of records over the years and I think the one thing I do enjoy most of all is just making records. I don't particularly enjoy writing, I find writing is quite a stressful experience, and I don't particularly enjoy the performance aspect that much. I mean it's not like I don't like it, but it's not like what I live for. But what I really enjoy doing is having that kind of vision to make a record. That kind of overall vision of an album, the creating or producing that record... that kind of ability to take the listener on some kind of journey over a 50 or 60 minute musical time span. That's really what I love to do, I love to make records.

So I guess the writing side is the side I least enjoy, but having written the material I guess I love working on the material. I love being in the studio making the record, trying ideas out, trying to create musical worlds and sounds that I've never created before... that kind of experimenting. So in essence, going to produce and outfit like Opeth is kind of a dream gig for me because the music's all written, they've already got their sound and they're basically saying to me, "Do your thing. Create your sonic magic or whatever it is you do, on our music. We already like what you do so just do it." That's probably the most pleasure I get - producing... not just records for other people but producing my own records too. I think that comes through clearly. It's so deep on a production level, I can tell you spent a lot of time tweaking, adding this here, and that there. I'm so amazed that every song sounds completely different, yet there's a coherency to all of them which implies an overall vision. How do you accomplish that? How do you write songs that are so different stylistically, but are still very much YOUR sound?

Wilson: Uh, by not thinking about it. I'll tell you what I mean by that. It's that I think over the years now I've got enough confidence that whatever I do or whatever the band does, we have a personality that is strong enough such that I don't think we'll ever fall into pastiche, or sounding like a pastiche of something else. So that we can now work with metal riffs, we can work with trip-hop beats, we can work with ambient textures, we can work whatever, you know - big harmonies.

And I think I believe now that whatever we do, our personality is strong enough that we will pull it off and it will still sound consistent with the rest of the bands' catalog. And we really didn't think about it. We didn't think, "Oh this is too different for the record"...actually that's not true, there was one track that didn't make the record because we felt it was too metal, it was too poster kind of pastiche of progressive metal. But apart from that one track, everything else on the record, we never for one minute really felt that there was any risk that it wouldn't all hang together. Because we all felt that Porcupine Tree has a sound, the musical personalities within the group are strong enough, and whatever we do, it will still sound of a whole. So that's the answer to your question really, we didn't really get too hung up on it, I think we just believed that there is a Porcupine Tree sound now. How long have you been together as a band?

Wilson: Since the last month of '93, so almost 10 years now. There's a quote from Miles Davis where he said, "You have to play for a long time before you can play like yourself," and you know I could hear any of these songs now and say, "Oh yeah, that's Porcupine Tree." I feel like I have an immediate appreciation for the sound of the band.

Wilson: It's funny 'cause I have various other side projects as well and I think they're all very, very different from Porcupine Tree. I have one project that's completely ambient, for example. I have another project that's very much a kind of '70s Kraut rock kind of thing, completely instrumental. And I think of these projects as being completely different but sometimes fans say to me, "Oh I can really hear the connection between this and this and that"...and that surprises me but I guess in a way shouldn't surprise me. I suppose whatever I do there are certain things, whether its certain sounds I like or certain production techniques I like or maybe just even some chords or melodic things that re-occur in everything I do, and I'm sometimes not even aware that they are re-occurring but they're just things that I guess are ingrained in me, ingrained in my personality, and they will always come through in everything I do no matter how much I believe I'm going off on some ridiculous tangential direction, you know?

I think that's true of Miles Davis as well. Miles Davis could go from doing bebop records to '70s sort of fusion records to hip hop records in the '90s and it would always sound exactly like Miles Davis. Because his personality was so strong, that he stamped it on everything he touched. What sort of equipment do you use to do your production and to write the music? How do you record, what tools do you use?

Wilson: I do everything on hard disk now. I use Logic Audio. That's the software I use. What guitars do you use?

Wilson: In the studio this time I was playing a couple of Les Pauls, and I was also using a Strat and a Tele. I used a Tele just very briefly on one song, mainly the Strat and the Les Pauls, and the heavy sounds were done with a [Peavey] 5150 head and a Marshall cab. But I also use a lot - a lot, a lot - of digital plug-ins. I'm a big fan of plug-ins and I know a lot of engineering purists who, when I say I use plug-ins, are horrified - these analog purists who use the real outboard stuff. But when they hear the record they're amazed that plug-ins can sound that good, which kind of tells me that it's not what you use, it's how you use it.

And if you know how to use the plug-ins I think they can sound absolutely fantastic, and there are some great plug-ins that do really weird stuff. There's all the usual stuff like the amp simulators, which I use a lot to get some of the heavy guitar sounds, they were done with little digital amp simulators. But also the weird and wacky stuff you can do using digital plug-ins that you could never do with analog gear. I use a lot of that stuff; it's a real digital plug-in heavy record. I guess I like to combine the two, the kind of beauty of the analog world with the flexibility of the digital world. What are some of your favorite plug-ins?

Wilson: Well, I've got so many. I really like a plug-in called Low-Fi, and there's a plug-in called Amp Farm, both of which do similar things, basically to overdrive the signal, but in very different ways. Low-Fi does it in a very kinda clean, digital way, which is sometimes good to get a real fizzy sound. Amp Farm, as it's name suggests, just basically allows you to model various amplifiers. But I mean you can put all sorts of things through them. We put keyboards through them, we put drums through them, we put bass, we put vocals through them.

I also use plug-ins on the vocals a lot. I don't know if you noticed on the album, I use a kind of megaphone type vocal effect quite a lot. I did that with Opeth as well, it's one of my trademark production gags, if you like, to create that kind of telephone, megaphone type voice, very heavily compressed. And I used a Focusrite plug-in so that the D2 EQ and the D3 compressor combined, to create that effect. I'm a big fan of the Echo Farm, the old analog echo simulator which is fantastic, and I defy anybody to be able to tell the difference between the digital one and the real thing. I'm sure there are some engineers that probably could but I can't. So those are some of them anyway. Well, you really know how to make them work. Thanks for taking the time to discuss all this with us.

So there you have it: In Absentia is one of those albums that I think so many people would enjoy, if they only had a chance to hear it. Take my girlfriend for example: She's mainly a radio listener and had it not been for me would probably never have heard of Porcupine Tree, let alone actually heard their music. It's unfortunate that so many great bands go unheard for whatever reason. Many of these songs could be played on the radio and become huge hits, but I fear they probably won't. Perhaps it's because the industry execs feel that if people actually heard good music on the radio, they might come to expect better albums from the record labels, and that would just be too much work for all those Hollywood fat cats. There's a rant screaming to get out here, but I'll bite my tongue for now.

Bottom line... go out and buy this Porcupine Tree's In Absentia today!.

About the Author
Author John Welborn, a long-time behind-the-scenes player at, is a self-proclaimed programmer, geek, and guitar hero in training. Check out his version of metal at

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