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Interview: Richard Barbieri of Porcupine Tree
On the phone from London, Porcupine Tree keyboardist Richard Barbieri has one request for this interview: “Try and make me sound more intelligent. Cut out all the London ‘ers’ and ‘ahs,’ ” he jokes. “Make me sound like David Sylvian with a dictionary!”
Sylvian, of course, is the smooth-tongued vocalist who was Barbieri’s bandmate in Japan during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The seminal New Wave art rock band released a series of groundbreaking and influential albums such as Quiet Life, Tin Drum, and Gentlemen Take Polaroids. On those albums, Barbieri carved out a reputation as an innovator by using the synthesizer in a textural way. He’s still renowned for using his programming skills to create unconventional atmospheres and sonic colors that are distinctively his own.
After Japan broke up in 1982, Barbieri continued to guest on Sylvian’s solo albums and collaborate with Japan’s drummer Steve Jansen and its late, great bassist Mick Karn in a number of configurations, most notably Rain Tree Crow, a Japan reunion in all but name. But in the early 1990s, the keyboardist also began to work with a young musician named Steven Wilson in a band named Porcupine Tree. From its humble roots, Porcupine Tree has branched out into a global success over the past two decades. Despite scarce press attention or airplay, the four-piece band is now the vanguard of a vital new progressive music scene thanks to word-of-mouth. Porcupine Tree’s last album, The Incident (2009), debuted in the top 25 on both sides of the Atlantic and the group capped its extensive global tour with sold out performances at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and London’s Royal Albert Hall.
On the eve of the release of Porcupine Tree’s new live album Octane Twisted—a stop-gap release during an extended hiatus while the musicians pursue solo projects—Rock Square asked Barbieri to trace the evolution of Porcupine Tree by talking us through each of its albums.
On the Sunday of Life (1991)
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Steven Wilson co-founded a promising art rock band named No-Man with singer Tim Bowness. (No-Man continues to this day.) Its first major single, “Colours,” was serendipitously attuned to, if not slightly ahead of, popular musical currents. With a signing to major indie label One Little Indian, No-Man’s future seemed bright.
Wilson’s nascent side project, Porcupine Tree, began as a lark. It was an outlet for him to dabble in musical areas outside of No Man and to hone his production abilities. A series of Porcupine Tree cassette releases soon found an audience among crusty hippies and festival goers fond of cosmic space rock. On the Sunday of Life collects those early cassette releases on one album. If eccentric pieces such “Samuel Linton Dawson” and “Jupiter Island” hardly hinted at the grand direction of future Porcupine Tree releases, tracks such as “This Long Silence” and “It Will Rain for a Million Years” reveal Wilson’s early knack for widescreen melody. The album’s epic centerpiece, “Radioactive Toy,” remains a fan favorite and has made frequent appearances in Porcupine Tree shows over the years.
Richard Barbieri: I don’t mind “Radioactive Toy,” but I think if I’d heard that record before I worked with Steven, I don’t think I would have worked with him. There’s not much on that album that I can relate to in any way. Yeah, it’s very bizarre. Very psychedelic, I guess.
Up the Downstair (1993)
During its ambitious pop phase, No-Man recruited Mick Karn, Steve Jansen, and Richard Barbieri from the band Japan for a series of live dates. Not long after, Wilson recruited Barbieri and Colin Edwin, an Australian-born bass player who had attended his high school, to contribute some parts to Porcupine Tree’s second album, Up the Downstairs. It was still largely an amateur effort with Wilson playing many of the instruments, aided and abetted by a programmed drum machine. (Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison overdubbed proper drums on several songs for a re-release of Up the Downstair.)
The sophomore record marks the proper start of Porcupine Tree’s first musical phase. As its M.C. Escher-like title suggests, Up the Downstairs is music designed for accompaniment by Lava Lamp. “Burning Sky” and the epic title track combine the space grooves of The Orb, the ambient dub of Future Sound of London and the psychedelic meanderings of Ozric Tentacles, yet they’re stamped with Wilson’s musical personality. The snappy “Synesthesia” offers an early peek at Wilson’s pop sensibilities. The dynamic ballad “Always Never,” which ends with a mushrooming guitar blowout, showcases Wilson’s use of light and shade. The gentle closer “Fadeaway” floats on currents of melancholy and is a Porcupine Tree classic.
Richard Barbieri: At the time, I was working with Steven as part of No-Man, which was his main project at that point, with Tim [Bowness]. He said that he had this side project called Porcupine Tree and would I be interested in playing on it. I said, “Yeah, fine.” He was very enthusiastic about everything musical and his enthusiasm rubbed off on me. I went around to his place and listened to some of the stuff and it was very kind of spacey and trancey. He wanted a lot of electronics on it, a lot of old-style analogue electronics, which was perfect for me. So I brought around all my old stuff and just started jamming with the music and trying things. It was an early ’90s sound. A lot of it sounded a little bit like The Orb at the time. And, of course, since then it has developed into something very different.
Rock Square: Do you have any particular favorites from that album? In more recent years, Porcupine Tree has sometimes played “Burning Sky” and “Fadeaway” from it.
Richard Barbieri: “Fadeaway” is a beautiful song and I guess that was the beginning of Steven’s songwriting in a conventional sense. And, of course, the title track is probably the one I played the most on.
Rock Square: I felt that the recent reissue of Up the Downstair, which featured Gavin’s overdubs over the original drum machine, really gave the songs a boost.
Richard Barbieri: Obviously, with the technology of the time, Steven was probably programming and the programming was a little bit crude and not emphasizing the dynamics in exactly the right way. Although they have a charm of their own, I can see how having someone like Gavin put in a performance would really make a difference.
The Sky Moves Sideways (1995)
No-Man’s retreat from live activity following poor sales opened a door for Steven Wilson to recruit Barbieri, Edwin, and Chris Maitland, who had played drums with No-Man, to create a touring unit. During its humble early gigs on the pub circuit, Porcupine Tree titled its shoulder against the prevailing winds of musical fashion—from baggy indie to Britpop—and was eventually rewarded with a live session on BBC Radio One.
The cover of The Sky Moves Sideways looks like a homage to Doctor Who: A red British phone box stands as a lonely sentinel in the middle of a barren quarry. Fittingly, the music finds Porcupine Tree time traveling back to the heyday of Pink Floyd for its most ambitious progressive rock to that point. The album is book-ended by a two-part title track that collectively adds up to a 35 minute piece. A shorter ballad, “The Moon Touches Your Shoulder,” features a gorgeous David Gilmour-influenced guitar solo. Only the harsh guitar riff of “Dislocated Day” hinted at the heavier direction the band would take in future.
Rock Square: At that time, did you foresee that Porcupine Tree would become as big as it did? Did you have those kind of aspirations?
Richard Barbieri: I’m not sure whether I thought it would become as big as it did. But it was basically Steven’s drive and enthusiasm that keeps you part of the whole thing. I could see that he was a very talented songwriter and I could see how hard he worked and how ambitious he was. And, also, it was important that he had a respect for my role and for what I’d done before and what I was contributing to the band. That was enough to keep me happy and interested in being in that band environment. I mean it was quite awful going back to playing those pubs and awful venues, which I hadn’t done since the very early days with Japan. A lot of people I knew said to me, “Why are you doing this?” But I’ve got quite a good intuition about people and about their talent. I kind of believed in what we were doing.
It also helped having Chris there because, although he hadn’t had a high profile, he had worked quite a lot professionally before. So he was always obsessing about things—looking good, sounding good and just the whole professional idea of putting on a show. And so the two of us were constantly fighting to try get the production level raised, even when we were playing small pubs and clubs. To the extent that Steven would put this awful toolbox on the top of his amp and there’d be leads everywhere and he’d only bring one set of strings and if a string broke, that would be the end of the show. It was real kind of amateur.
I didn’t really know what [Porcupine Tree] was or what it was going to be at that stage. Maybe Steven didn’t, because then it went into The Sky Moves Sideways. It was the first sprawling, prog album. Very large musical landscapes and soundscapes and quite different from Up the Downstair. It was changing quite quickly right back then. I’m not sure how Steven feels about it. I actually prefer Up the Downstair, to be honest.
Rock Square: I think Steven has said that, in retrospect, The Sky Moves Sideways wore its Pink Floyd influences a little too openly on its sleeve.
Richard Barbieri: I think so, yeah.
Rock Square: But Porcupine Tree did revisit the epic title track of The Sky Moves Sideways for its 2010 shows at Radio City Music Hall and the Royal Albert Hall. How did it strike you?
Richard Barbieri: It was quite interesting and, on a lot of levels, it worked well. Obviously, Gavin playing it was a different thing. The equipment was different. That’s what struck me afterward. I kind of wished I had the same equipment I had in the old days. Because, from my point of view, I don’t think I can’t put the same performance in, if you like. I think it was actually better in those days for me. And then I realized it was to do with the synthesizers I was using at the time. It was a case of trying to recreate those, but it didn’t have quite the same feeling. On another level, the energy was really good and it’s nice to play that for the fans.
Porcupine Tree’s first proper band album, Signify, ushered in the second phase of the group’s sound. Word-of-mouth began to spread thanks to early list-serve sites on the Internet. Signify accelerated the band’s growth inside the U.K. as well as territories such as Italy and the U.S.A.
Though Signify still has elements of the band’s earlier space rock sound on “Intermediate Jesus” and “Idiot Prayer,” the band had begun to temper its cosmic jams in favor of more articulate songs with heavier guitar riffs. The acoustic-based “Waiting Phase One” and the delightful vocal harmonies of “Every Home is Wired” accentuated Wilson’s pop hooks. But it’s on “Dark Matter,” an airy moody piece that suddenly plunges into a black hole maelstrom of keyboards and guitar, that the band finally discovers its true voice and future direction.
Rock Square: Signify was the first proper band album, wasn’t it?
Richard Barbieri: That’s right. It’s the first time we all went into the studio together and played as a band and we went out and did our own overdubs as well. It’s the first time we were involved and consulted on things and we put in ideas and our own kind of arrangements. It started to feel like a band then. I love that album, actually. It’s one of my favorites. There are some great tracks on there. I really like “Sever” and “Idiot Prayer” as well. I’ve actually done a cover of “Idiot Prayer” that I haven’t played to anyone, yet. It’s in a bit more of a hardcore, techno-y style. It seems to work quite well!
Rock Square: Signify ushered in the second phase of Porcupine Tree’s sound—more song-oriented.
Richard Barbieri: The songwriting was coming through more and, obviously, he was a talented songwriter. The arrangements were becoming a bit more concise and a bit more disciplined. But also, with the instrumentation, it was nice that we were all able to put our own personalities in there. Suddenly we’re playing mellotrons and Hammond organs and it all just felt more organic. I think that album has a nice sound.
Rock Square: It’s also the first album where Steven shows growth as a lyricist. The album is largely concerned with how people try to find significance in their lives.
Richard Barbieri: Yeah, I think it’s probably the first time he started thinking about themes and topics and ideas. They’re observational lyrics, really. You suddenly got the sense that the songs are about something. You know, when you go back to the lyrics On the Sunday of Life, that’s really just experimenting, I guess. But these lyrics were about things and I form my own imagery about what those songs are about as well—sometimes with a different conclusion.
Stupid Dream (1999)
During a lengthy hiatus, Richard Barbieri joined the H Band, a side project by Marillion singer Steve Hogarth. He also worked with Steve Jansen and Mick Karn. A live Jansen, Barbieri, Karn record, Playing in a Room with People, featured Steven Wilson on guitar. Wilson, meanwhile, co-produced and co-wrote a career-best solo album by Marillion’s former singer, Fish, and continued work with No-Man. By the time Wilson refocused on Porcupine Tree, the musical world had been reshaped by Radiohead’s OK Computer. One can hear the influence of its post-rock sound on Stupid Dream.
Stupid Dream possesses a precocious confidence that is fully warranted by its abundance of indelible hooks and magical choruses. Its personal lyrics give the album an emotional depth that surpasses anything Porcupine Tree had done before. The songs range from the unexpected buoyance and playfulness of “Piano Lessons” and “Stranger by the Minute,” to the spectral bleakness of “A Smart Kid” and “Stop Swimming.” A giant leap forward in production, song craft, and identity, Stupid Dream remains one of Porcupine Tree’s best albums.
Richard Barbieri: Again, I think it was Steven concentrating on songwriting. I think he’s very influenced by things at certain times. Probably, at the time he was listening to a lot of concise, well-arranged pop music like the Beach Boys. When you think what the Beach Boys put into a three-and-a-half minute song, the arrangements are just incredible. Also, I think he was rebelling a bit. A lot of people coming to our shows were kind of old-timey, proggy types in their forties, fifties—which was great; we’re happy for anybody to come. But I think he was a bit worried about it being labeled this kind of retro prog band. And so things got a bit more contemporary.
I love working with songs. That’s how I started. It was all about trying to experiment within the context of a song. But it’s a nice blend as well because there are some epic tracks on there also. Just a more sophisticated sound. The production values were getting better all the time. All of you learn when you’re in a band together.
Rock Square: On that album, you only used analogue keyboards. What was your approach to playing?
Richard Barbieri: Well, I never improvise on stage and people don’t see me as an improviser, but I do all my improvising in the recording. It’s nothing that you’ve worked out before. You’re just in the studio and you’ve got to come up with something. A lot of the time, I will experiment in the studio and things will occur to me as we go along. I have as big a set up as I can and as much flexibility as I can to multilayer stuff very quickly and that’s really where I have my creative brainstorms—in the studio. When it comes to live, I am just executing what I’ve already done.
It was great to have the analogue stuff. As you know, a lot of the contemporary bands at the time are still using digital sounds and it was great just to get back to organic electronics.
Lightbulb Sun (2000)
Lightbulb Sun was released so soon after Stupid Dream that the two albums sound like companion pieces. As such, Lightbulb Sun has been somewhat eclipsed by its predecessor. It’s a good album, though, and if it didn’t appreciably advance Porcupine Tree’s sound, there were still some stylistic tweaks. For starters, there’s the addition of some heavier guitar on the plangent “Hatesong” as well as during the climax of “Russia on Ice.” A more prominent use of acoustic guitars on songs such as “The Rest Will Flow” and “Where We Would Be” produce a more delicate touch than before. And the weave of vocal harmonies employed by the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and Crosby, Stills & Nash are a profound influence throughout, most notably on “Shesmovedon” and “How Is Your Life Today?” The title track, an affecting narrative from the perspective of a bed-ridden child, is propelled by burbling bass runs, a deep-pocket drum groove, and ebbs and flows between electric and acoustic textures. Most striking of all, “Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth before It Is Evacuated” begins with summery banjo and acoustic guitar before unexpectedly entering what sounds like an alternate universe in which dreamy mellotron and Fender Rhodes keyboards play over a clip from a 1950s science fiction movie. It’s unconventional and stunning.
At the time of Lightbulb Sun, the band began to garnering press in magazines such as Mojo and Uncut as well as a high-profile tour slot with Dream Theater.
Richard Barbieri: Well, I group that [album] together with Stupid Dream. I always put those together—a lot of people do. I think I prefer Stupid Dream as an album in retrospect. We started to use some strings and orchestration and the sound started to get more sophisticated.
Rock Square: You roped in XTC’s Dave Gregory, who you’d played with in the H Band, to do the orchestrations.
Richard Barbieri: He’s a friend of mine and Steven was an XTC fan, so he was quite happy to have Dave come in with some arrangement ideas.
Rock Square: “Russia on Ice” from that album makes an appearance on Octane Twisted. In this live version you stripped out the back half of the song and segued into the heavy middle section from
“Anesthetize.” How’d that come about?
Richard Barbieri: We’ve played it in its entirety before. It’s very hard to put a setlist together. That’s one of the biggest challenges we face when you go on tour because you’re trying to get the flow right and you have a huge back catalog. So you have to balance things out. In Porcupine Tree, it’s very easy to get into these very long pieces. One could follow another. It’s hard to get the dynamics right. To get the pacing right. And there’s all kinds of other things to consider, like tempos. It’s very hard for Gavin to come right out of a challenging dynamic track and then go into another one. Or, likewise, something very slow.
It just seemed to us to be a way that worked. You’re never going to please everyone.
Rock Square: I think that the fusion of the two songs in this live version works better than the original version of “Russia on Ice.”
Richard Barbieri: I do, as well. I think the song part of “Russia on Ice” is pretty timeless, to be honest. I mean, it’s pretty Floydian whereas the second half of that track takes you back into a territory that a lot of other PT tracks cover as well.
“Buying New Soul”
A collection of discarded material and B-sides from Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun, Recordings isn’t technically an album but it coheres like one. Its sole new composition, “Buying New Soul,” is Porcupine Tree at its most ethereal and funereal. It’s an instant classic. On “Cure for Optimism,” a shimmering melody slowly emerges from quietest space. Similarly, the drizzled percussion, solemn double bass, spectral guitar and misty keyboards of “Untitled” slowly coalesce into what sounds like a rain storm before dissipating once more. The influence of Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” seeps into the gorgeous instrumental “Oceans Have No Memory.” And “Disappear” and “In Formaldehyde” underscore the notion that Porcupine Tree’s B-sides are often as good as its A-side material.
Initially limited to just 20,000 individually numbered copies, Recordings became the most sought after album in the Porcupine Tree catalog. The band eventually relented to demand and re-released it years later.
Rock Square: “Buying New Soul” is in my top five favorite Porcupine Tree songs ever.
Richard Barbieri: Mine as well. I do remember recording that. It was during one of our group jams. And, often with these jams you can get stuck in one key and it can turn into a kind of space rock nightmare, like a Spinal Tap “Jazz Odyssey.” At the time, I was experimenting. I like to use machines not for the purpose they are there for. So, I was using a drum machine as a sequencer for note information. And I had this pattern that was starting to develop a nice little melody from. And it became the whole intro of “Buying New Soul.” I MIDI’d it up to an electric piano sound and I started layering over that. We started building a jam around that. That became the intro and outro. I started writing some chords and Steve brought in an acoustic guitar and was strumming and it really worked nicely. Chris was really sensitive with it. Colin was playing some double bass. That track developed into a real beautiful piece of music.
I think that album sold really well.
In Absentia (2002)
“The Sound of Muzal”
A landmark release for Porcupine Tree, and the start of its third musical phase, In Absentia was the band’s first release on a major label (Lava/Atlantic) and an attempt at cracking the American market. The departure of drummer Chris Maitland necessitated the search for a new drummer. Enter session player Gavin Harrison. Widely regarded as one of the world’s most technically accomplished drummers, Harrison has released a number of instructional books and DVDs on music theory. He is renowned for “rhythmic illusions” in which he makes small changes to a conventional pattern so that listener thinks that the tempo, and/or time signature has momentarily changed.
The addition of Harrison to the band resulted in a tighter, more rhythmic sound. But an even more profound effect on the band’s style was Wilson’s discovery of black metal. He’d been invited to produce an album by the Swedish progressive death metal band Opeth and that band’s heaviness seeped into Porcupine Tree (but without the cookie monster vocals).
In Absentia isn’t a death metal album, but it occasionally deploys heavy riffs as an occasional texture. For instance, “Blackest Eyes” kicks off with a crush-depth riff and then settles into an incongruously cheerful song about a serial killer. Steven Wilson channels the influence of another Wilson—Brian—for the golden harmonies of “The Sound of Muzak,” a biting critique of record industry commercialism and a supremely catchy melody.
In Absentia is nothing if not diverse in the way it veers from heavy stuff like “Strip the Soul” to the unexpected delight of a bluegrass banjo on “Trains.” The doomy keyboards of “Gravity Eyelids” bring Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode to mind. “Lips of Ashes” is a mystical convergence of Richard Barbieri’s ghostly cathedral of keyboards and David Gilmour-like guitar. And “Heartattack in a Layby,” a sparse and despondent elegy, is one of the band’s very finest moments.
Rock Square: Was the shift toward black metal sounds a surprise to you? Did Steven Wilson come in one day and say, “I’ve just worked with Opeth and, guess what, this stuff is the best thing ever!”
Richard Barbieri: No! I only discovered where Steven’s influences came from years later. I only just started listening to Rush about a year ago. I’d never heard Rush before. I started listening to Rush and I started to hear all these riffs I’d heard in Porcupine Tree or very similar, like the track “Signify.” I said to Steven, “I heard a Rush track like that,” and he just smiled.
I saw a Rush DVD and I really enjoyed it. I think I enjoyed it because of the strength of the band and the connection they have with each other. There’s just something you can feel. It just works. Recently, we went to the Led Zeppelin [Celebration Day] premiere in London—I’m a huge Led Zep fan—but my wife, who isn’t a huge Led Zep fan, really enjoyed it. I think it’s probably the same thing. You see these musicians on stage and, even if you’re not totally into the music, you know there’s something magical and connected going on there. I felt that with Rush, they’ve got it whatever it is.
Likewise, I missed out on the whole King Crimson thing as well. I have heard how obviously inspired Steven is by King Crimson.
So, no, I didn’t know that Steven was so into metal at that point or Opeth. I mean I was used to hearing quite heavy guitar sounds even on Lightbulb Sun and Stupid Dream, but this was a bit more riffy and a bit more metal.
But it was fine. It was great. That album was such a step up. Such a change. That really is where everything changed for Porcupine Tree. We were with a major label. The pressure was on. But we felt were ready for that. We’ve always felt we should have been a stage further than we are. And, of course, we went to New York and recorded it at Avatar studios, which used to be The Power Station, with Paul Northfield, who was Rush’s engineer. That kind of experience just rubs off on you. You’re in a vibrant city. You’re recording there and it just comes out on the album. A totally different sound and I think we all rose to the occasion.
Rock Square: And, of course, you had Gavin Harrison on drums for the first time.
Richard Barbieri: Yeah! We had that problem when Chris left and Steven really didn’t know what to do. He said, “Do you know anyone?” I said, “I do know someone. He could come in and do this really quickly and really well.” I had known Gavin for quite a while but Steven, never having heard him, really wanted to audition him. I said, “You can audition him, but you don’t really have to.” He insisted on auditioning him, so he went a little rehearsal room and, of course, Gavin has everything written out and everything ready. He just started off “Blackest Eyes.” He got to the end of “Blackest Eyes” and Steven said, “Ok, sorry to have brought you in and wasted your time.” And that was the end of the audition. I knew it wasn’t going to be a very long audition!
Rock Square: In retrospect, do you wish you’d released the song “Trains” as a single given how popular it has become? Or would that sort of song with a wide crossover appeal have pigeonholed Porcupine Tree too much?
Richard Barbieri: I know what you mean. I think, at the time, singles were just beginning to wane a little bit. Record companies weren’t so much into the idea of a single but, yes, it would appear to be the perfect single. But, the thing with Porcupine Tree is, without any real media attention and any kind of real help from the press and radio, the band has grown in this organic, word-of-mouth way. When someone gets a real hit single, often their sales can go up but then they fall after. You get this false sense of where you are. With us, each album has sold better, each chart position has been better.
Rock Square: What are your favorite songs on In Absentia?
Richard Barbieri: Well, I really like the mellow stuff. “Lips of Ashes,” “Heartattack in a Layby,” and “Collapse the Light.” I love that track. It’s possibly our best album, in terms of consistency. That and Fear of a Blank Planet are my two favorites.
“The Start of Something Beautiful”
Inspired by an unproduced film script of a ghost story, Deadwing is a much harder album than its predecessor. The lead single, “Shallow,” is so heavy it makes Metallica sound like Dire Straits. As usual, Porcupine Tree revels in its stylistic diversity.The hooky “Halo” features an off-kilter solo by King Crimson’s Adrian Belew. It starts with a murky and ominous groove before bursting into an unexpectedly sunny chorus. Elsewhere, “Lazarus” offers a Coldplay-like piano melody. The epic centerpiece “Arriving Somewhere but Not Here” vacillates between ethereal euphoria and heavy guitar riffing that could cleave titanium. The penultimate tracks, “The Start of Something Beautiful” and the absolutely gorgeous shimmering closer, “Glass Arm Shattering,” belong in any progressive rock hymnal. There’s also a hidden bonus track, “Shesmovedon,” a remake of the song that originally appeared on Lightbulb Sun. In all, Deadwing is a superb follow-up to In Absentia, if not quite its equal.
Rock Square: Deadwing was an even heavier guitar album. Did you ever feel as if you need to fight to get space for your keyboards in the songs?
Richard Barbieri: A lot of people ask me that. You take the rough with the smooth. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy approaching these tracks. It’s just a case of having to find the space. I think that’s a skill set I’ve had over the years. It’s managing to find the frequencies, to get the emotion right in what you’re doing, and to find those spaces. Then, when it doesn’t require you to play, just don’t play! It’s almost more important not to play. It’s a good decision that almost nobody would ever recognize. I mean, Robert Fripp says much the same thing: “Just don’t play. Sometimes it’s better than playing.”
There’s actually a lot of me in there that people don’t realize is keyboards. There are sounds that people don’t pick up on. I use a lot of distortion and I also put these kind of interlocking rhythmic things with the drums as well.
Rock Square: What are the highlights on Deadwing?
Richard Barbieri: “Mellotron Scratch,” “The Start of Something Beautiful,” “Halo.” There are quite a few band co-writes on that album. So, things like “Halo” came out of a pattern that Gavin and I had. That’s an example of me working in a rhythmic sense. I kind of had this white noise pattern that he started to play around and then I started bringing in some chords and that became “Halo.” Works very well live, as well.
I tell you what I didn’t like on Deadwing and that’s a track called “Shallow.” It’s so out of context for Porcupine Tree. It really didn’t feel like Porcupine Tree to me. It just had too much of a knowing sound to it. American kind of rock. There wasn’t that naivety about it or that honesty about it.
FEAR OF A BLANK PLANET (2007)
“Way out of Here”
Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav might be slightly bewildered to discover that a British progressive rock band has misappropriated the title of their seminal Fear of a Black Planet. A contender for Porcupine Tree’s best album, Fear of a Blank Planet is a thematic record about kids losing their sense of innocence and childhood in an age of information overload. The music is more ambitious than ever before with numerous unexpected twists and turns. “Sleep Together” sounds like Nine Inch Nails doing a cover version of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” “Sentimental” is as gentle as a child’s lullaby and boasts one of Wilson’s catchiest choruses. “Way out of Here,” which includes soundscapes by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, is an anthem of despair whose end section swerves violently between throttled guitar and a soaring chorus.
Best of all is the 18 minute “Anesthetize,” which consists of three distinct musical movements. Its brooding first section coils around a hypnotic drum tattoo and unwinds with a spiraling, multi-layered guitar solo by Alex Lifeson from Rush. During the second movement, powered by an incandescent chorus, high voltage drums lock together with bass and keyboards that thrum like a dynamo. The thrashing guitars, meanwhile, test the limits of their amps. “Anesthetize” concludes with a sublime comedown during its final suite. It may be the most beautiful music Porcupine Tree has recorded.
Rock Square: Fear of a Blank Planet was when Porcupine Tree really started to grow its audience and play bigger venues.
Richard Barbieri: Yes, that was the case. I think it’s interesting that we went out and played the album before we finished recording it. That really helped and I think that got people really interested. Although it’s something you’d feel a bit hesitant doing, actually it worked really well. The first part of the show would be previewing this album that nobody had heard, and that required concentration and respect from the audience and they gave that to us. It was almost like a very intense first half of a show and then we’d have a break and we’d come back and play songs that people could react to and have a good time. That format worked very well and we continued it with The Incident.
Gavin found loads of different ways to present songs in a better way. He’d try things. He likes to improvise. It was so much better than if you make an album and you don’t play it live and then you think, “I wish I’d tried this on the album.” So it gave a lot of the band a chance to try out a lot more ideas.
Rock Square: You co-wrote “My Ashes.” And “Way out of Here” is a band composition.
Richard Barbieri: Like In Absentia, I pretty much like everything. I think it’s a very consistent album. “My Ashes” is one of my favorites, not just because I co-wrote it. “Sleep Together” is great. The strings are fantastic on that.
Rock Square: “Anesthetize” features Alex Lifeson of Rush, who sent in a guitar solo. Have you met Alex?
Richard Barbieri: I have met Alex, yeah. I’m going to play golf with him at some point. We’re both mad golfers. We went to see Rush when they were at the O2 [in London]. So I was chatting with him and said next time he comes over we’ll have a go. I got into golf about three years ago and I’m addicted to it now.
Rock Square: What’s your handicap?
Richard Barbieri: Well, a handicap differs depending on the courses. On average, I’m probably around 29, 20.
THE INCIDENT (2009)
“Time Flies (single edit)”
Breakthrough! The Incident, a top 25 album on both sides of the Atlantic, catapulted Porcupine Tree into rock’s top leagues. Even more impressive: They did it almost entirely through word-of-mouth.
Wilson’s inspiration for The Incident came from a traffic jam on a highway after an accident. As Wilson explains, “There was a sign saying ‘POLICE – INCIDENT’ and everyone was slowing down to rubber neck to see what had happened,” he recalls. “Afterwards, it struck me that ‘incident’ is a very detached word for something so destructive and traumatic for the people involved.” The musician then started thinking about other incidents in the news and his own personal life, and how one’s life can change in a matter of seconds due to a single event.
Result? An ambitious conceptual song cycle. The Incident comes packaged with a second disc that consists of four other compositions. Unusually for Porcupine Tree, not all the album is immediately accessible. True, there are several hooky tracks such as “Blind House,” “Flicker,” “Black Dhalia,” and “Remember Me Lover” that take up residence in one’s mental juke box right away. But the album requires more work and patience than usual. But repeat listens reveal hidden gems and subtle melodies. The album’s centerpiece is a brilliant 12 minute epic called “Time Flies,” which is a deliberate homage to Pink Floyd tracks such as “Sheeps” and “Dogs.”
As good as The Incident is, it’s still more of a silver medal effort than a gold medal album.
Richard Barbieri: I think it’s slightly flawed. In retrospect, when Steven came to us with a 45 minute piece of music … even he kind of admitted to me himself, “Well, you should have stopped me.” I said, “Well, would you have listened?” And he said, “No.” Which I thought was quite honest. [Laughs.]
I was quite enthusiastic about it when we played it and I still am, having played it live so many times. It’s an incredibly sort of intense piece. It doesn’t follow the normal format of performing an album. There are songs that you start to think are a song and then, after a minute and a half, they’re finished and you go on to something else. Then there’s an ambient part with mellotrons, harmoniums, and voices and then suddenly you’re into an epic track. Then the tempo changes completely. It’s quite an intense piece of music to play, but I find it an interesting challenge.
I kind of prefer disc two because it’s the band working together and writing together. It’s the same old story: When the band writes together, I think sonically it’s more interesting. When Steven comes to us with a song on his own, it’s a stronger song. That’s the way it works, really: When a singer-songwriter sits down with a guitar or piano, they’ll come up with a great song. We can write some really sonically interesting music but, of course, the vocalist then has the challenge of turning that into a song. Steven’s done it in the past with things like “Way out of Here” and “Halo” and “Buying New Soul.” But something like “Bonnie the Cat,” that’s quite weird! So sonically I prefer disc two but the songwriting is generally better when Steven writes alone.
Rock Square: I loved disc two of The Incident. “Black Dahlia” is great.
Richard Barbieri: Yeah, I brought that track in more or less complete. Just to show you how Steven works, he said, “Ah, ok, that sounds good.” We were in a residential studio at the time, so we all had rooms within the same building. So he said, “Look, why don’t you guys work on something else and, in the meantime, I’ll just go up to my room with a laptop.” And he came down about two hours later with the song—the lyrics, the vocal lines, the harmonies, everything.
Octane Twisted (2012)
“I Drive the Hearse”
The band’s tour for The Incident, during which they frequently played the album in its entirety, was the longest and most grueling of its career and included new territories such as Australia and India. The year-long tour concluded with two special extended shows, one at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall followed by one at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Octane Twisted, a live document of the tour, features a Chicago show, including a complete performance of The Incident. The second disc includes a few older songs in the setlist, including an abbreviated version of “Russia on Ice” that segues into the second section of “Anesthetize.” “Stars Die,” a rarity from the band’s earliest days, is also taken from the Chicago show. A handful of songs from the Royal Albert Hall, including an extended version of “Even Less” from Recordings, rounds out the second disc. The live album includes stunning guitarwork by the band’s longtime tour guitarist John Wesley. Octane Twisted is testament to Porcupine Tree’s thrilling prowess as a live act.
Rock Square: You’ve included a few tracks from the Royal Albert Hall performance. Had there been plans to release either the Radio City Music Hall show or Royal Albert Hall show in its entirety?
Richard Barbieri: Yes, there were plans. The problem with Radio City was there was a malfunction. Let’s say there was a human error whereby the show wasn’t recorded.
Rock Square: Oops.
Richard Barbieri: Which is a shame. That was a great show. We recorded Albert Hall which wasn’t, for us, technically as good a show. There were some problems. You know, there are always some problems on stage that people don’t notice, but they do cause more hassles than people realize. It wasn’t quite as great for us, even though the occasion was wonderful. So, we had to sift through that a little bit. When we were thinking about possibly releasing it, we found out that Royal Albert Hall charges a huge amount of money to use anything recorded there. It really was prohibitive. We’re talking tens and tens and tens of thousands of Pounds. So, in the end, going back and forth with them again and again, we worked out a deal where we could use some tracks. We thought it would be nice to include some of the older material that we played at Royal Albert Hall onto the second disc of Octane Twisted.
Rock Square: What are your memories of those two shows?
Richard Barbieri: We did an acoustic set, which was very enjoyable. It was an amazing way to start the show, especially at Radio City with all its curtains and the depth of the stage, you could do all these reveals. So when the people got into the auditorium, all they see if this minimal little jazz setup at the front. They must have been wondering what the hell is going on and whether there was a support band. So we come out and do a little set. After that, the next curtains open and there’s all our gear and we go into the first part of our set. And then again, the next curtain opens up and we’ve got the biggest LED screen in the world, I think. So, suddenly, we’re all in this film going on. It was a magical moment.
That was a very special show, that and the Albert Hall were incredible. They’re venues you know about all your life. Famous and so much history attached to them. Finally, to get Porcupine Tree on stage with a production we all wanted to project.
Rock Square:What are the standout tracks on Octane Twisted?
Richard Barbieri: The most beautiful track, I think, is “I Drive the Hearse,” which is the closing song of The Incident. I think we actually did it better than on the album. All the subtleties are there. You know, it’s so hard sometimes to achieve the subtleties when you’re up on stage—so much fighting against you. But that track just lends itself to space and to mood. I love “Stars Die,” as well. Again, it kind of worked in that arena, that setting of the Royal Albert Hall.
Rock Square:John Wesley plays a lovely solo on “I Drive the Hearse.”
Richard Barbieri: Yes, yes! He comes out with some lovely solos. He is playing the guitar all day, every day, so it’s what we expect. He always delivers.
Rock Square:Steven has said that he is now tired of heavy metal and that he feels that the vocabulary of heavy metal sounds is now overly familiar and played out. So he’d like Porcupine Tree to ditch the metal sound next time and go somewhere new. What’s your take on that and do you have any ideas on what the next iteration of Porcupine Tree might sound like?
Richard Barbieri: I completely agree with him and I think we all feel the same. We’ve had three or four albums now in that kind of ballpark. There’s no doubt that it’s time for a change, a different direction. I spoke with Steven and he was saying, for a start, he’s not interested in that kind of guitar style anymore or particularly too much guitar. He’d like to be writing on keyboards and playing in the studio on keyboards. Which is great, because I think that brings about a completely different vibe and a different kind of composition.
As to what kind of music that we’re going to make, we really don’t know until we get together. We probably all have our own little agendas and our own manifestos. For me, it’s always been about trying to make the arrangements around the songs more experimental. That’s my big thing and that’s not changed since I got into music, as far back as Japan on tracks like “Ghosts” and things like that. A great song will hold up regardless of the backing. But instead of putting in those lovely, lush chords, just try to work in a different way. Just try to break the chords down a bit and make different sounds or arrange it just slightly different.
I guess the first thing would be to get together and just talk about what kind of direction. It just naturally will be different. It always has been in Porcupine Tree’s past. Often it’s down to Steven’s influences at the time. He’s generally quite open to musical influences so, who knows?
Rock Square:Do you anticipate some full band writing sessions for the next album?
Richard Barbieri: I think so. I would hope so. I think the strongest songs come from Steven bringing something to us, but I think we can afford to be a little more experimental with the arrangements and possibly not take the demos so far. You know, Steven tends to take the demos to almost a completed point and then it’s very hard to hear it in another way. As nice as Hammond organ pads or mellotron pads are—I mean, those instruments are going to sound good on anything—sometimes it’s nice not to have that. That might be an interesting thing to explore.
I think there’ll be group compositions as well, otherwise there’s no point in having a group, is there? I mean, what he’s doing with his own [solo] group now, presumably he gets to write everything he wants to write and have everything played the way he wants to have it played. I don’t think that’s really the point of Porcupine Tree.
Rock Square: What’s next for you? Do you anticipate any live performances of Not the Weapon but the Hand, your recent album with Marillion’s Steve Hogarth?
Richard Barbieri: Yes! I just had a conversation with Mr. Hogarth a couple of days ago and we are trying to do a little tour. Maybe 8 or 10 shows around Europe, maybe around May. The problem is how we are going to do it. It’s not complex music but it’s very sonically complex. We’ve got to think about how we can present that on stage. It doesn’t occur naturally as to how we are going to do it. I’m going to have to think about how the arrangements are going to work and what sort of personnel we would need with us.
Rock Square: I suppose you could always call up Dave Gregory, who played on the album and has played with you both before.
Richard Barbieri: Yes, but then you’ve got to think, well how much is a guitarist going to do throughout the set. Does that mean we need bass? We really need backing vocals because it’s so vocally dense on the album. There’s too many keyboards for me to play. There’s all these things to think about. But we want to do it. We could certainly put together a good show because he has a solo album previous to that, I have two solo albums. There’s Marillion material that we sometimes have a go at. Maybe we’ll try a Porcupine Tree number. We have great fun doing it.
It just happened the other day. There was an offer from Portugal out of the blue: Would we like to do a show? And the offer was very good. We thought was interesting. Maybe we could do a little tour.
I’m working on lots of things at home. At the moment, I’ve just finished a pack for a Slovakian musician. It was him and a drummer called Morgan Ågren, who is a really good Swedish drummer. I get sent loads of stuff to my website and usually I don’t really get involved. I’m not really a session player. But, lately, there’s been a few pieces of nice music and I thought, “Well, I’ve got some time. I’m always at my most creative during the winter; that’s when I do all my work. So I’m doing a few bits and pieces.”
Richard Barbieri: Funny you should say that. Steve sent me the special box set and I just put the CD in to listen to it today but I didn’t get around to it. So I am just about to listen to it. I like Marbles and I know he was saying that fans are really happy with it. So I’ll definitely give a listen to that and the new Scott Walker album. I bought the Swans record a little while ago. Texturally, it’s quite interesting, isn’t it? It’s quite powerful. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. It’s certainly interesting. Have you heard a band named Field Music?
Rock Square: They’re great!
Richard Barbieri: I love them. Obviously their influences are a bit heavy and easy to spot but they’re very talented.
Rock Square: Thanks so much for chatting.
What does the future hold for Porcupine Tree? No one, including Barbieri, knows. For now, the individual band members are staying busy. Steven Wilson will release his third solo album in February and will be touring it across the world. Colin Edwin is playing bass on an upcoming album by Slow Electric, a side project of No-Man’s Tim Bowness. Gavin Harrison recently toured behind the release of his third album collaboration with 05ric, The Man Who Sold Himself, and, as an in-demand drummer will no doubt be booked for various sessions and drum clinics. As for Barbieri? He’s currently writing new music—“I’m at my most creative during the winter,” he says—and will soon be preparing for his tour with Steve Hogarth. But when Porcupine Tree does reconvene to release a new album (most likely in 2014), fans can expect the band to enter its fourth distinct musical phase. After all, Porcupine Tree is on a mission to progress back into progressive rock.