It’s clear from even the most cursory reading of his lyrics and themes that Porcupine Tree frontman and principal songwriter Steven Wilson is deeply passionate about media. Only fitting since as a musician he’s on the front lines of a popular culture which over the last 10-15 years has shifted toward blind celebrity worship and a lack of focus on the creative process. As a spearhead act of the modern heavy progressive movement, Porcupine Tree flies in the face of the culture, such as it is, at large.
Signed at long last to Roadrunner Records (which is really where they belong), Porcupine Tree have released The Incident, their latest in a long string of albums at least partially based on the notion of identifying and indicting the vacuous and contrasting it in every way possible. Wrapped around the mundane everyday desensitization, The Incident was formed around one large composition split into separate tracks, even in presentation going against the 99-cent-single ethos.
Of the lengthy conversation we shared about the record, writing it, recording it (Wilson produces all his own material) and ultimately touring on it, the part where the guitarist/vocalist really opened up was in the discussion of media and how it relates to Porcupine Tree’s music and ideology. As such, that’s what I’m printing. We now join the interview already in progress…
…How did the concept for the album come about?
The concept really came about one night when I was driving home. I saw a sign on the highway saying, ‘Police Incident,’ and I suddenly—for whatever reason, I still don’t know exactly why—I started to dwell on the word ‘incident.’ It doesn’t actually tell you anything except that something has happened.
I started to dwell on ‘what exactly is that incident?’ A squirrel walked onto the motorway? A traffic cone fallen over? Something trivial like that? As I was driving through, I realized quite the opposite, it was a very, very serious car accident. Presumably fatal. So I had a very sort of poetic moment and subsequent to that, I started to notice on the news, particularly on the BBC News on the TV, the use of this word ‘incident’ was almost ubiquitous. It was always being used and very often in a context that almost seemed designed to disconnect you from the horrific reality of what they were talking about.
‘Incident’ itself is a very dispassionate word. Quite detached. Very often they would be talking about horrific things, like child abduction, homicide or an earthquake. Talking about really horrible things that have terrible emotional consequences for the people involved and still they relate them to us as incidents in the media. I found out why that was. We can’t all be empathizing with every awful thing that happens in the world, otherwise we’ll all be walking around emotional wrecks.
But at the same time, there’s something quite twisted about that, and what really brought it home to me was the whole Michael Jackson thing, which actually happened after the album was finished, but kind of threw it into relief to me, because it shows that when the media choose to, they can do the exact opposite. They can make you feel like something awful has happened.
They can make you feel like you should all engage in some incredible communal feeling of mourning and sadness, and I call it the ‘Princess Diana Effect,’ because Princess Diana for me was someone I had no interest in as a person, no interest in anything she had to say, anything she was doing, and yet when she died, I was somehow expected by the media to feel incredible sadness and like I’d lost someone close to me. The same thing happened with Michael Jackson.
The point I’m making is these are not related to us as incidents, quite the contrary, and there is something quite twisted about the way the media choose to create emotional hysteria about certain things which actually ultimately are far less significant. I mean, Michael Jackson dying is sad. I’m not trying to be callous and say it’s not. Of course I was sad about it. When you consider that in 2001 20,000 people died in an earthquake in India, relatively speaking, that puts it into perspective. A pop star died. A pop star that hadn’t made a good record for 20 years died. Twenty thousand people dying in a few minutes in India, and that is related as an incident, and that is what is twisted about the whole thing.
I guess there’s something deep in the whole psyche of humanity. We have to block out these things in a way, but it’s funny how we sometimes choose to have this wonderful communal mourning for certain celebrities when they pass away. Anyway, I could talk about this all day, but that was kind of where the incident concept originally came from, but as I say, it was kind of a loose concept because I was picking up on various media stories that struck me and had almost been glossed over in the news.
There was one about the religious cult in Texas last year that was evacuated from a compound. There was one about a body being found in a river. There was one about a child abduction. I picked up on these things and wrote in a first personal way to try and put that emotional resonance back into the stories that I felt I hadn’t had the opportunity to feel when I’d seen the original news items.
That ultimately led me on to writing about my own life and being more autobiographical and writing about certain incidents in my own life, both good and bad, that had effected me as a person and changed the path of my life, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. It’s quite loose, but there is a theme running through everything, I think, which is this sense of seismic events, life-changing or life-altering or sometimes life-ending events.
That kind of media critique is something you’ve been doing for a while now. On Fear Of A Blank Planet, there was a more general look at culture through the Bret Easton Ellis book. Are you conscious of the ways you present your perspective in the lyrics?
I guess if I’m conscious of anything, I’m conscious of the fact that I’m very much following in the tradition of musicians—not just musicians, anyone creative —that are very much aware of their own sense of alienation from the technological age that they live in. It’s very hard not to feel alienated from a world in which reality TV is so omnipresent and seemingly so influential. It’s very hard not to feel alienated from a country where most kids these days seem to be more inspired and more passionate about computer games than they are by music.
It’s very alien to me because I grew up—not so long ago—in the ‘80s. In the ‘80s, music was still the number one way that you, as a kid, as a teenager, you would use to define your personality as distinct from your parents’ personality. You’d always pick music that your parents would hate (laughs). Rebellion is a very important part of growing up, no question, and that was the way you did it, with music.
Nowadays, the music the kids listen to is to is more conservative than the music their parents listened to. Their parents were listening to The Smiths or Slayer or Pink Floyd. Now the kids are listening to Green Day and Metallica, which is much more conservative musically than what their parents were listening to, and I think this is the first generation you could say that of.
Every subsequent generation really has shocked in some way the previous generation with their musical taste and there’s no way for kids to do that now, so in a way, I guess the way they rebel against their parents now is with technology, with computer games, with cell phones, with iPods and all this technology, which is kind of alien certainly to my generation.
I don’t necessarily think it’s a good thing, so it’s that sense of alienation. I guess it’s the same sense of alienation that Thom Yorke felt 10 years ago when he wrote OK Computer or Roger Waters felt in 1979 when he wrote The Wall.
There is this sense of artists particularly more from the hard rock tradition of feeling and trying to express this sense of detachment and alienation from the world they live in. I guess that’s what I do, and because of the generation I’m from, I find myself in a world that is all about reality TV, iPods, cell phones, computer games, the death of certainly the commercial end of the music industry, American Idol and all this stuff, which is hard not to feel about cynical about. It’s all pretty much lowest common denominator stuff, which is unfortunate, I think…
The Incident is available now on Roadrunner Records. Porcupine Tree will be appearing live at Terminal 5 in NYC on Sept. 24 and at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia on Sept. 26. For more info, check out porcupinetree.com.