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A conversation with Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree

As the leader of internationally revered progressive rock band Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson has created a body of work that rivals the early-to-mid-’70s glory days of the form. ¶ A driven, incredibly prolific artist, Wilson has always seemed to have more music in him than any single band could possibly handle, so it has been less than surprising to watch him indulge in a broad array of “outside” projects while working with Porcupine Tree, among them Blackfield, No-Man, Bass Communion, and the recent Storm Corrosion album, which found him collaborating with Opeth leader Mikael Akerfeldt. ¶ However, with 2011’s solo effort “Grace For Drowning,” and its newly released follow-up “The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories),” Wilson has broken through to a fresh, vital atmosphere as composer, bandleader, arranger and producer. Indeed, the latter album has been widely heralded as the most exciting progressive rock album to see release in decades. Clearly inspired, and working at the peak of his creative powers, Wilson has proven himself to be the wunderkind of contemporary rock music for listeners who have chosen to live outside of the musical mainstream. ¶ Wilson brings his band – bassist Nick Beggs, guitarist Guthrie Govan, keyboardist (and Miles Davis alum) Adam Holzman, flute/saxophone/clarinet maestro Theo Travis and newly recruited drummer Chad Wackerman – to the Town Ballroom (681 Main St.) for an 8 p.m. show today. We spoke recently by phone, as Wilson prepared to enter rehearsals with the Wackerman version of the band at home in England.

Jeff Miers: Although I’ve found progressive rock to be interesting and occasionally vital in its post-’70s form, one thing that I’ve found troubling is the way the music lost touch with jazz and jazz-fusion. The early movement in prog certainly had that element of jazz improvisation and to a certain extent, jazz harmony as a central component. Was this something you consciously set out to bring back to progressive music?

Steven Wilson: Well, thanks for noticing that. One of the great things for me about that era of what we call progressive music is that it was album-oriented, and there was this wonderful cross-pollination of styles going on. That era – in the wake of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” until the early ’70s, let’s say – is a very unique moment in time. All of a sudden, musicians who had no real interest in pop music suddenly got excited by the possibilities of rock because of these remarkable albums by the Beatles, the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” the Moody Blues, what have you. They approached it without any self-consciousness, and so in a way, they were incredibly free to do whatever they pleased. And so you had people who were jazz musicians at heart and in experience bringing those qualities to rock.

You can’t artificially re-create that moment in time, of course. I’m paying homage to it, in a way, by trying to mix sensibilities of jazz and rock in a way that has a sense of spirituality. And by spirituality, I don’t mean religion or anything like that, but rather, the sense of the elements of music combining to create something … other.

JM: You’ve said that you conceived and composed “The Raven” with a specific group of players, your “Grace For Drowning” touring band, in mind. The way that [drummer] Marco Minnemann plays – on top of the beat, in an incredibly driving manner – is a significant part of the album’s sound, and the band’s sound in the concert setting. Chad Wackerman is a very different drummer than Marco – both are incredible musicians, but for different reasons. How does Chad coming on board change your approach to the music?

SW: I have to say that I can’t answer that question, because we’ve yet to play together! (Laughs) Of course, any time there is a new player introduced, the chemistry is changed. That can often be incredibly exciting. In all honesty, I had a very short list of three or four drummers who I would consider for the gig. Gavin Harrison (Porcupine Tree drummer) was one of them, naturally, but he had other obligations. Chad played with Frank Zappa, and so I know that he understands the balance between soul and complexity, because he proved as much time and again while in Zappa’s band. Obviously, he is an incredibly sophisticated musician, but I also know that he understands that one can play incredibly simply and break people’s hearts. That’s important to me.

JM: When I reviewed “The Raven” a few weeks back, I remember being fascinated by the way you conjured a world where the living and the dead commingle, and it’s often difficult to tell them apart. I compared this to Edgar Allen Poe’s “Ligeia,” one of his stories where the lines between ghosts and corporeal beings become blurred, and in the process, past and present seem to become the same thing. Why is this such a rich creative area for you to explore?

SW: Perhaps not Poe so specifically, but yes, in the sense that, in my view, the best horror fiction is all about the living. We are all aware of the fact that we die. That is something that unites us. We learn very young that we are mortal. I am not approaching this from a religious standpoint, but I most certainly believe that we must make sense of the gift of life. From youth forward, we measure ourselves against this clock that is ticking away. We can understand the fascination with an afterlife. We certainly all understand the concepts of regret and loss. I believe that ghost stories, if you will, can illuminate life.

Being creative is one way that we can make sense of the gift of life. That’s why I myself am so driven to make as much and to be as creative as I possibly can, while I can. Looking at things this way, it seems that death can help us to make meaning out of life.

JM: The title song is a profoundly beautiful piece of work, but it’s also profoundly sad. Striking a balance between such heavy and potentially depressing subject matter and the somehow uplifting nature of the harmonic construction has got to be one of the most difficult things a composer can do. Can you discuss the process of composing that particular song?

SW: It is something that’s hard for me to analyze. I don’t really write ‘happy’ songs – I tend to write when I’m sad, reflective, or perhaps even angry. A lot of the music I truly love the most – Nick Drake, John Martyn, Radiohead – is very, very beautiful, but also melancholy. For me, the creative process explores the existential situation and offers salvation through expression. You could say the same about the blues, or murder-ballads, or whatever – this is what I mean by “spirituality” in music.

JM: You’ve consistently refused to stand still as an artist, and while this has been nothing but positive for your music, I have noticed that there are some fans of your work who would like to freeze you in one particular place in your evolution – a place that they are comfortable with. What do you say to those fans who are so resistant to change and growth?

SW: That’s tough for me to answer. I completely understand – how could I not? I’ve fallen in love with particular periods of an artist’s work, too. The problem for me comes with how that resistance to change is expressed – when it is nasty, and devoid of thoughtfulness. I’ve actually read things online that said, “His new music sucks.” That crosses the line for me. OK, you liked the older stuff better, but to say that something I’ve poured everything of myself into, have challenged myself immensely to make, and have assembled with obvious care “sucks” simply because you don’t like it is incredibly upsetting. That said, I am aware that I can’t make a record that pleases everyone. I believe that a true artist is someone who would never try to please anyone other than him or herself. That sounds very selfish, I know, but it isn’t, really. Of course, one hopes that others will enjoy that music too, but the true artistic impulse must be to please no one other than yourself.

Today, music is predominantly generic. Almost all of it is being made to serve already existing markets. There’s just plain too much music! I feel strongly that music written, produced, packaged and so forth simply to meet a need that has already been proven to exist in the marketplace is cynical and corrupted. An artist whose first priority is pleasing himself artistically would not be manufacturing music in that way.


Steven Wilson: Plays the Town Ballroom at 8 tonight. He will be at Record Theatre, 1800 Main St., for an album signing starting at 12:30 p.m. today.