IF YOU AREN’T CAREFUL, THE NEW Porcupine Tree album might blow your speakers or earbuds apart within seconds of hitting the play button. The British progrock outfit’s tenth studio release, The Incident [Roadrunner], kicks off with a dramatic, window-rattling, repeating power chord designed to focus the listener on the album’s epic conceptual themes.
often dehumanized by being reduced to the word “incident” by the media. Some of the album’s subject matter involves delving into a terrible traffic accident and its aftermath, religious cult activity, and the impacts and emotions that occur when bodies are found at random by strangers. But it’s not all doom and gloom. The album also looks at positive personal incidents from the life of songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist Steven Wilson, including his first love, a lost friendship, and the day he chose to throw caution to the wind and become a fulltime musician.
The album paints its sonic pictures with varied brushstrokes. Together, Wilson, keyboardist Richard Barbieri, bassist Colin Edwin, and drummer Gavin Harrison, combine prog’s proclivity for extended, mercurial passages and intricate interplay with metal, pop, electronica, and folk influences. The album covers all bases from dark and thunderous to dreamy and delicate. It’s an appealingly eclectic approach, and one that has captured the attention of an exponentially expanding fan base. In fact, word-ofmouth recommendations and grassroots marketing efforts propelled The Incident to a stunning top-20 debut in both America and Britain.
In addition to his role in Porcupine Tree, Wilson continues to participate in many other projects. His atmospheric pop duo with singer-songwriter Tim Bowness, No- Man, has just released the live DVD Mixtaped [Kscope]; and Blackfield, the melancholic rock act he co-helms with Israeli pop superstar Aviv Geffen, has released the live DVD/CD Blackfield NYC [Kscope]. On top of all of that, he’s in the midst of remixing the majority of the King Crimson back catalog in surround sound, which will be reissued throughout 2009 and 2010.
The Incident features a very provocative, inyour- face opening sequence. Why did you find that approach appealing?
There’s a tradition with Porcupine Tree in which we start albums with a little sound effect or texture that eases you into the musical journey. This time I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to start with a real statement of intent?” The American composer John Adams is a big influence on me. He has a work titled “Harmonielehre” that starts with the whole orchestra stabbing away on these grand power chords. It’s an almost primitive approach, reducing music down to one big note. I thought, “If we’re going to write a big, album-length piece of music, let’s not start with any pretentious ambient stuff. Let’s go for the big note, too.” So, I sat down and came up with this power chord that appears in three groups of three. It sounded good and the rest of the album grew from there. That represented a key difference in the creative process compared to previous Porcupine Tree albums. With this one, each piece I wrote led naturally to each subsequent piece. So, everything grew out of that opening salvo.
You’re uncomfortable with your emerging guitar hero status. Why?
I feel like a fake because I’m not a great guitarist. I know I have a style and sound that’s my own, but it comes from my overall vision for how I want to make records and my production approach. I think my style partly comes from my limitations. I’m just not interested in playing fast or being an Olympic guitarist. That doesn’t appeal to me. I’d rather hear someone play one note with feeling that can break my heart than 50 notes that mean nothing to me. I’ve never been interested in being a great technician, which is just as well. I don’t have the discipline or inclination to do that.
How do your limitations on the instrument influence your creative process?
I write in a very intuitive, idiot savant kind of way. Once I’ve put the music together, I have to present it to the band at some point. For instance, Richard Barbieri might say to me, “What’s the chord?” I’ll say, “I don’t know, but this is how I do it,” and play it for him. He’ll say “That’s a Bb diminished minor seventh,” and I’ll respond, “Whatever” [laughs]. When I write, I’m looking for sounds that feel good. I don’t have any academic background to know what a Bb diminished minor seventh is. I believe you can sometimes know too much about what you do, and the truth is, I’ve never fetishized the tools I use to make music.
Elaborate on that.
I don’t approach the guitar the way a typical guitarist or musical purist would. I’ve always approached it as part of the texture of the songs, and so I use a lot of amp-simulation software in my work. When I tell this to some other guitar players, they’re horrified. It’s a common thing to do, but most real guitarists still feel you should put a guitar through a real amp and mic it up. And those who do use amp simulations are often trying to emulate classic amp tones—something that has led to a lot less distinctive-sounding musicians, because it’s so easy to copy the tones of other guitarists. In the ’70s, there was no such a thing as a $250 box with presets that let you sound like Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton. What I do is use amp simulations in a purely creative way, and that’s why a lot of people think some guitar sounds on the record are keyboard sounds and vice-versa.
Describe your amp-simulation and processing setup.
I plug my guitar directly into an Apogee Trak2 mic preamp and A/D converter and route that into an input bus. That feeds an Apple Logic Pro front-end, running the Pro Tools engine underneath it. Then I go through Line 6 Amp Farm, and out to a chain of ridiculous plug-ins that I experiment with until I get sounds and textures I love. I use a lot of plug-ins that aren’t meant for guitar at all, including a suite by Digidesign called D-Fi [Lo-Fi, Sci-Fi, Recti-Fi, and Vari-Fi]. They’re designed to f**k up songs. I particularly like the Sci-Fi ring modulator plug. It is very lowfi and allows you to reduce the bit rate and sample rate of a sound until it begins to break up. You could never get such digitally distorted sounds out of a real amp. I also love the Line 6 Echo Farm, which lets me add wobble and dropouts to the sound. In addition, I use the Focusrite d2/d3 multi-band EQ and compressor/limiter plug-in bundle. I use a lot of extreme d2-based EQ in my stuff.
On the current Porcupine Tree tour you mainly play Paul Reed Smith Custom 22 guitars. What do you like about them?
They feel great and look great. They are also incredibly versatile and can cover a lot of bases that more classic guitars can’t. When you listen to Porcupine Tree music, you’ll hear a very wide sonic spectrum, from extreme metal lines to ambient, blues, jazz, and acoustic tones. When we recorded The Incident, I used Les Pauls, Stratocasters, and Telecasters, and the Custom 22 allows me to replicate their sounds with a single instrument.
You also used a custom Paul Reed Smith baritone guitar on the new album.
Yes. Winn Krozack, the Director of Artist Relations at PRS, offered to make me a guitar. I said, “One thing I’ve always wanted is a baritone because there’s a Swedish band called Meshuggah, and I love how they play their guitars tuned way down, with the top strings taped up.” It’s a beautiful instrument with a faded Blue Matteo top and a satin nitro finish, a 27" scale, 22 frets, and a tremolo bridge. I also asked them to do something unusual and put a piezo pickup on it, so I can combine the glitchy sound of the strings with the Mark Tremonti magnetic bridge pickup that’s on it. You can hear the combination on a track on The Incident called “Your Unpleasant Family” that has a very jangly open guitar chord sound, but it’s played on the baritone, so it’s much lower than a typical guitar. I used the baritone guitar for a lot of the heavier stuff on the album.
The AlumiSonic Ultra 1100 guitar is another core instrument in your arsenal.
It looks fantastic because it’s made entirely of metal, and it sings in a way no other guitar I’ve ever had does. It also has really impressive sustain, and generates beautiful sympathetic feedback between the amp and guitar that I’ve never experienced before. And because it’s made of metal, it has more reflective surfaces, so the harmonics reflect more freely and musically.
What are the other elements in your signal path?
I don’t use a lot of things, typically. In concert, 60 to 70 percent of the time, it’s just my guitar going through my Bad Cat BC-50 amp head into a matching Bad Cat 4x12 cabinet, maybe with some delay and reverb. I have a TC Electronic G-System effects processor that’s easy to use, but in terms of actual sounds, they’re the same as you get out of any typical guitar box. I’m also using the Option 5 Destination Rotation Single Vibe, a Soundblox Multiwave Guitar Distortion, a Jim Dunlop Cry Baby wah, and Boss SD-2 Dual Overdrive and FV-500L Stereo Volume pedals.
Who are your key guitar influences?
Robert Fripp is my number one influence, no question. The others are mainly the major prog-rock guitarists, including Alex Lifeson and David Gilmour. I’ve been working a lot with Fripp recently, remixing the King Crimson back catalog. When I was very young and first heard those records, I would think, “That’s just wrong. You’re playing the guitar wrong, mate!” But the more you start to listen to his playing, the more you appreciate his choices of notes. Fripp is a very unique man and his guitar playing reflects that. He doesn’t pick notes in any sort of logical way, but he plays them with conviction. He blew my mind open when I heard his solos on King Crimson’s “A Sailor’s Tail” and Brian Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire.” It’s just extraordinary stuff. I’ll never be able to play that way because you have to have the mind of Fripp to do that, but there is certainly an influence from him in terms of choosing unique notes and making them sound beautiful.