Amidst a crowd of ex-hippie psychedelic rockers and scrawny metal-head band geeks, Porcupine Tree lit up the stage at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre Friday, promoting their new album, The Incident. The progressive rock band started in 1987 as a joke band hailing from Hertfordshire, England. Since then, they have released ten studio albums and gained a large underground fan base.
Before the show, many fans noted, “they’re better live,” in part because of the visual displays — complete with synchronized color lighting and projected films. Lead singer Steven Wilson, guitarist John Wesley, keyboard/sound processor Richard Barbieri, bassist Colin Edwin and drummer Gavin Harrison know how to play together fluidly, even through improvised portions of the show that are nothing short of amazing. Whether you’re a fan or newcomer, the live Porcupine Tree experience is definitely worth the price of admission.
North by Northwestern sat down with drummer Harrison to discuss the band’s “cinematic” style, live performances and the secret behind the band’s name.
For those who are not familiar with the band, how would you describe Porcupine Tree’s sound?
I think we play music that gives people images in their mind when they listen to it. It’s a listening music. It’s not the kind of music that you come to dance to, or rock out, or head-bang to, although there are occasional parts that are like that, but generally it’s a kind of listening audience that comes to see us. They’re not three-minute pop songs. We’ve given up hope of ever getting on the radio or having a hit single. We’d prefer if people just listen to our music as an album rather than, “Oh I like this song, or that song” and stick it on shuffle on their iPod. We hope that the Porcupine Tree listener is someone who’s got a really nice hi-fi, and they can sit at home, turn it up, turn the lights off and just really listen.
Your newest album, The Incident, is a double-disc, which is typically a risky move for most bands and not always very successful. What made you decide to release the album in this way?
Well you know what, we could have fit all of the material on one disk. There is enough space on an 80-minute CD to fit everything on it, but from the conception of the album, we wanted to write this really long piece, which is like a sort-of cinematic film, like a journey, the whole hour Incident piece. We wanted to make that a separate thing, rather than just have that and all the other material jammed on the end.
A lot of your music critiques the entertainment and music industries, such as in the song “The Sound of Muzak”. How do you reconcile your views on the industry with being on a major record label? Are you ever accused of “selling out” by fans?
Well, yeah I mean [by] the older fans who got with the band in the early ’90s when the band was more psychedelic. I think we progress with each album, we change sound, we change the style of songs and we move on. Sure, some fans probably hate that, and some of the older fans just go on about the earlier records. Some people don’t know the band except for the last album, or the last two albums, or the last three albums, and they’re more familiar with the more recent sound. As far as if we think we’ve sold out…well, the guy who signed us to Warner Brothers, he’s a real big progressive rock fan, and he’s always been on our side. At the end of the day, you still need to get your music out there and distributed, otherwise your message doesn’t come across at all, does it?
If you can, describe the ambiance of a Porcupine Tree concert for those who haven’t seen one. What’s behind the visual displays?
We started putting up films when I joined the band in 2002. We met this Danish film director called Lasse Hoile, who is actually the guy on the front of In Absentia, and he was kind of running in parallel with us in terms of what he was trying to do with films as we were doing with music, and so he started composing films to our music. Although it was a bit crude in the early days, we were projecting films with the music [as a] visual representation of what we were trying to play, in an abstract way. Each year, the films have become more and more elaborate and more integrated with the music.
I’m sure you get this question all the time, but what’s behind the name Porcupine Tree? I know it’s a joke, but what does it mean?
I don’t actually know, is the honest answer. Steve made it up a long time ago, and he said that there’s a joke to it, but he said that the story behind where the name comes from is so weak and uninteresting that it’s better just to never tell anyone because it keeps it mysterious. He’s never told anyone in the band what it is, so we don’t even know. He said it’s better to keep it a secret because if you knew the truth you’d be very disappointed.