By Mark Derricutt
20 years ago I started an adventure, leaving home in Napier and moving to Auckland; on that and many journey’s back and forth I would pass this giant brain on the side of the road just north of Hamilton. In time I would discover this to be “Cranium Records”, an off beat specialty store for psychedelic, stoner, and krautrock, and subsequently a regular travel stop.
It was on one such stop out of Auckland that I enquired about a band I'd heard mentioned in a forum and soon I was listening to Signify, the fourth album by Porcupine Tree. I left the store however with the recently released live album Coma Divine and by the time I made the return journey I was hooked - a quick stop late Sunday afternoon and I continued my journey with all 4 previous releases. I was in aural heaven.
Roll forward 20 years, Cranium Records is sadly no longer with us, Porcupine Tree is on indefinite hiatus, but I'm still here, and so is Steven Wilson - the mastermind and founder of Porcupine Tree. Steven is performing for the first time in New Zealand at The Powerstation on October 26th and even better - I find myself on the phone with him, it's one of those semi surreal moments of 'how did I get here', but I digress…
First off, thank you so much for the wonderful music you’ve been producing over the last… I think the first album I heard was Signify...
Wow, ok that’s 20 years ago cause that was ’96, so exactly 20 years ago, that’s a long time.
It was a random stop at Cranium Records years ago that lead me to discover so much music, including yours and since then I’ve been a life long fan...
Great, well nice to speak to you and I’m happy that I’m finally coming to your country.
So you last came through in 2013 to Australia, and now you’re coming to both NZ and Australia, why New Zealand now?
You know, I get asked this question a lot - sometimes when I’m going to a country for the first time I get asked variations on that question, and the answer is honestly “It’s not up to me”. I love to play anywhere I have a fan base and it’s really more down to a local promotor having the confidence and the finances to bring me to a country for the first time, so all I can assume and I don’t know this for sure but - simply because I never saw it on my itinerary, I can only assume that this is the first time that a promotor has been interested enough, and confident enough that I’ll sell enough tickets to actually bring me, to play in New Zealand…. My show is not a cheap show to present, and that’s part of the problem, because I have all these films and screens, and quadraphonic sound system and world class musicians and a crew that’s similarly world class - my show is not something I can just turn up on a plane with a few boxes and guitars, it has to be be properly financed, so I suspect it’s something to do with that, because it’s an expensive show to bring it’s taken this long for someone to feel confident to bring me there.
That sounds right, we’ve had quite a few shows were sales didn’t pick up in time so they ended up being cancelled, along with a few festivals being cancelled, so there is that confidence.
Certainly these days you can have a very big following in a country but not have actually sold many records. I have this certainly in India where I have a massive audience but I haven’t sold any records at all, and it’s kids sharing music, streaming music, and ultimately that’s the most important thing - music is there to be shared and I think my ticket sales are going pretty well in Auckland so there’s no danger of it being cancelled. It’s definitely going ahead but it’s one of those things that until you actually put a show on sale as a promotor, or an artist you have no idea! Because your CD/record sales these days are not really a good gauge of what following you have in a country, so I’ve been pleasantly surprised, we’re going to have a great time and I really look forward to meeting the New Zealand fans for the first time ever.
I’m definitely looking forward to seeing you guys, and hopefully I’ll be shooting photography as well so that’ll be a double win for me… so with the whole quadraphonic sound, and stage setup - how do you go about adapting that to the venue, obviously different countries and different sites you don’t necessarily know where you’re going to play, so is that something you need to set out specific requirements?
There’s several answers to your question, the first answer is I have a very very good crew that have been with me for many years and their job is way in advance of the tour happening to get all the specs of the venue and figure out a way to do the show and thats down to my sound engineer, and my lighting designer, and my stage crew - they will figure it out. The other answer to your question is the main screen I have, which is an LCD screen, is built in blocks, so it can be configured to fit any stage, it can be as small or as big as you need because you build it in blocks, so that makes the show a little more flexible, the quadraphonic sound thing is not so complicated, it’s basically finding a place at the back of the hall to put two speakers and that can be easily remedied, the screen is a bit more complicated but as I said the screen is modular so it can be constructed to fit the size of any stage.
So what sort of things are you projecting onto the screens? is it laser lights or like the video from Routine?
Well there you go, you know the answer to question! We project the videos to songs, there are certain songs you will have seen online, so Routine, Perfect Life, but there’s also films to many of the other songs which were created specifically for, and only for live use. So they're not things I’m releasing on Youtube or online, but they are things people will see when they come to the show. And they are essentially short films based on the lyrical content or concepts, in a way to elaborate on the songs.
So it is very much a multimedia experience. There are times in the show where the emphasis is very much on the visuals and not so much on the musicians, and there times when there are no films and you’re able to just watch us play and perform the songs - for me that keeps the show much more engaging and exciting. There’s always something going on, there’s always something new about to happen. I think it’s hard these days to keep the attention of an audience for 2.5 hours, particularly if they don’t know the music and there are some people coming along to my shows (wives, husbands, kids, friends) who maybe don’t know the music as well as the more obsessive fans. I’m always thinking about them - how can I keep the show engaging and interesting over 2.5 hours, so I think the films, the quadraphonic sound, the visual aspects all that is geared towards keeping the show interesting from beginning to end.
When you mentioned the films were written specifically for the songs, I was thinking back to the song Routine. When listening and followed the lyrics I could follow the story, but there were gaps that didn’t quite click until I saw the video and the visuals. The subtle things like a headline in a newspaper - that just threw the emotion aspect of the song thru the roof, is that something you consciously think of when writing songs?
Here’s the thing. When i’m writing songs I have a very strong visual idea in my head and I’m not a film maker or photographer, I have no talent at all in those areas, but at the same time I’m kinda seeing the songs in my head and have a kind of movie going in my head. Of course one of the things about making music is that ultimately the lyrics, and the narrative side of the songs really has to be in service to the music, and it’s not always easy to get across the whole story because ultimately you’re writing pop music. You have to concentrate on the musicality of the words, and that means sometimes you have to compromise on certain, like you say - things that weren’t so clear in the lyrics. Well that’s because the lyrics had to be service to the music and song, but when you put them together - the visual and the music I think you have something that’s greater than the sum of either individual parts.
There’s something about music and film together, for me - that is the most powerful, and potent medium of all, and because I think of my songs in visual terms, it’s been very important for me since the very beginning to try and get involved in the world of film. I’ve been very fortunately to have met people like Jess Cope - the animator who did Routine, and Lasse Hoile who takes a lot of my live action films. Very fortunate to meet these people who are able in a way to interpret my songs, and I can try and describe to them what I see in my head and they’re able to go away and actually make that real, make that flesh and thats an incredible thing to for me as an artist just to see those songs up there interpreted in visual terms.
I picked up the large hardcover edition of “The Incident” by Porcupine Tree, having all the photographs that were not part of the songs, but were related to the songs and the process of writing, there was a whole other dimension to connecting to those songs.
Yes, that again is something that goes with my solo work. Did you see the special edition of Hand Cannot Erase? That was a whole experience in the sense the special edition was basically a document of someones life, a young woman’s life, and not only did you have the book but you had separate individual elements like a birth certificate, a postcard, a letter, a mix tape insert... We had all these loose inserts that was like opening a box that had all these individual documents that would tell you about this young woman, her life, and all these things - letters from lovers, postcards from holidays, and all that stuff for me was like a way to you know, create a whole world. A whole character and life, and everything that goes with a life, the diaries, the sketchbook, the art - and I loved doing that. It was incredibly hard work but it was really creating a whole world, not just a pop record but creating all of the visuals and all of the ephemera that goes with someones existence.
Do you find yourself falling into those characters and getting caught up in the emotion of them, and having to just step away for awhile?
No, I got really immersed in that character. The thing is the special edition was basically a young woman's life told through a diary and online blog. And of course all those diary and blog entries were written by me, so in a sense whenever you create, and I’m sure this is true of novelists and film makers, in a sense when you create a character that character is an aspect of yourself. And the reason it’s an aspect of yourself is in order to make people believe in that character, in order to make that character seem somehow genuine, you have to give your own experience, emotions, and memories to your character - so a lot of things I wrote about in “Hand. Cannot. Erase” and a lot of the things I wrote about in the diary and lyrics and a lot of the things you see in the films are taken directly from my own life. And I kind of donate them to my character in order to make that character flesh and blood. so absolutely - I get very emotionally tied up with those characters, for the simple reason they are all essentially aspects of my own personality.
With the special editions, we mentioned earlier about how in India you have lots of fans, but no CD sales, and with Spotify/streaming, how relevant do you think these special editions with more than just digital files, for music going forward?
The problem is now, it’s very tough to sell a bog standard generic CD in a crystal case with a four page booklet - because that’s not that appealing to the kind of collector. The person who perhaps loves the idea of music presented in a physical way, but loves something with a tactile feeling, basically what vinyl used to be. Vinyl was this very tactile thing, you could hold it in your hand, gate fold sleeves, inner sleeves, just the whole experience of taking the vinyl out of the sleeve and putting it on the turntable, lowering the stylus. That was an incredible tactile experience - and that disappeared with CDs, and of course it went completely away with streaming/digital, but I think now there is a way with CD, and lets not overstate the death of CD argument - CD is still by far the biggest selling physical product. Still much more than vinyl, I think sometimes people over estimate the vinyl revolution. CDs are still doing very well. But I think nowadays, in order to make someone to WANT to buy a CD you do have to give extra content, but that’s great because it encourages the artist to… think like an artist. To try make the packaging more interesting, more engaging, to add extra content, to think about maybe adding a DVD, maybe thinking about surround sound, a 5.1 mix maybe, and I love that. I love with the idea of playing with the possibilities of packaging, presentation, so in a way that’s almost forcing musicians to think again maybe the way they might have done in the golden age of vinyl. I’m happy we’re in that world now.
Something I just picked up on, you’ve mentioned you write pop songs, so…. are you a popstar - or a progstar?
Ok, firstly - the word you’ve used there I’ve never used about myself and I would never use it about myself. I personally think that word is completely meaningless, I don’t know that means, what does “prog” mean? It’s a meaningless word, progressive means something, but progressive is something you could apply to any musical form…..
…..Unfortunately, it was here, in the middle of an epic rant from Steven over the word “prog” that my recorder unfortunately ran out of juice, thankfully this last, somewhat baiting question was the last I had planned to ask, we continued to discuss how labels of music, and especially made up, or abbreviate terms/genres such as “prog” tend to belittle, or pigeon hole an artist.
As one final parting question, I asked about our interviews rescheduling, Steven was in the recording studio so our call was delayed a week, and the wonderful news to my ears was that the recording time was adding finishing touches to a new Blackfield release, one of Steven’s collaborations with Israeli musician Aviv Geffen to be released in November, as well as starting work on a new solo album slated for 2017.
Wednesday October 26th: The Powerstation, Auckland
Tickets via AAA Ticketing