Interview with Porcupine Tree: Filling In The Blanks

Porcupine TreeCentered around the 17-minute opus, “Anesthetize,” and structured to flow as a continuous piece of music, Fear Of A Blank Planet, the latest in a string of stellar albums from lush UK prog-metal stalwarts Porcupine Tree, is a recognizable departure from 2005’s Deadwing. You might think of it as frontman/guitarist/producer Steven Wilson’s way of saying, “That’ll show you to call one of my songs a ‘single!’” And indeed it will.

Powerful, fleshed out and expansive, Porcupine Tree’s music bases itself around Wilson’s songwriting, and while Deadwing followed a narrative structure lyrically, Fear takes the notion one step further, music and lyrics working in even closer tandem to create a singularly cohesive mood and context. As loyal fans know, the subject matter of media commentary is a passion point for Wilson, and up to the album’s title, he uses the lyrical storyline to express his dismay at what he sees as the dissolution of culture and art in the face of novelty and convenience.

Porcupine Tree will be appearing live at Nokia Theatre in NYC on May 19. When I spoke to Wilson, he was getting ready for a US tour with one of his several side-projects, the collaboration with Israeli songwriter Aviv Geffen, Blackfield.

On Deadwing, it was the lyrics flowing into each other to tell the story. This time it seems to be more the music.

Lyrically, I have to say, this is one of the most cohesive sets of lyrics I’ve ever written, in the sense that they are all about the same thing. Deadwing, you could probably say the same, it’s true, but I think it’s even more so on this record. The lyrics are all drawn directly from the subject matter of the title, the fear of a blank planet.

I think it’s certainly true that this album is musically more of a continuum. The lyrics are also very much a narrative continuous piece as well, but certainly I think musically this album has gone up a level in terms of trying to link and create a continuous sequence of music. Deadwing was more about nine separate pieces that were linked lyrically. This is more like one piece of music.

Was it different writing with that in mind?

It was different. Actually, it was a lot harder, because the whole thing about writing Porcupine Tree music is it’s always a question of finding a way to put all the particular pieces of the puzzle together to create the right kind of flow, the right dynamics. To take the listener on the right kind of journey, and when you’re working as we were this time, on basically a single, 50-minute piece of music, there are many ways to put those pieces together, but only one that sounds absolutely right.

I spent a long, long time trying to find that right flow and that right sequence for this record. Time will tell whether I actually managed to get the right sequence. I think I did.

Coming off of Deadwing, what was the comment you wanted to make with this record, lyrically and musically?

Before I even had the idea for the album, I wanted to make an album that wasn’t compromised by what I see—certainly on Deadwing, the album is compromised by what I see as the more radio-friendly, shorter pieces.

That’s not to say they’re not good pieces and I’m not happy with them. I am, but this time around, I was very firm on the idea that this was going to be a very cohesive, very intense piece of music, without those lighter interludes. Very much thinking in terms of an album like Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd, where you have this complete cycle of music. That was really the idea musically.

The lyrical idea came later on. I actually read a book by Bret Easton Ellis called Lunar Park, don’t know if you know it. It’s the guy who wrote American Psycho, and his last book is about the dysfunctional relationship between a father and a son, and the son, for me, was basically the model for the main character in Fear Of A Blank Planet.

It’s a 10-year-old boy who’s high on prescription drugs, spends most of his time in his bedroom on the internet playing Sony PlayStation, watching tv on his cell phone, using his iPod, hanging out at the mall: the kind of archetypal blank generation kid in a way. He became the model for me for most of the subject matter on the new record.

Why that story?

Because it’s something that, for me, as a musician, as a songwriter, that was the subject that I felt most moved to write about. It’s the thing which concerns me more than anything else. How the 21st Century, the proliferation of reality tv, the proliferation of gadgets, the proliferation of the internet, of cell phones, of iPods, PlayStations, ‘American Idol,’ ‘Big Brother’—how do all of these things affect the kind of developing mind, the nascent mind?

What kind of kids are we creating with this kind of diet, this incredible white noise of information, gadgets and drugs and violence and pornography and news and all this stuff? I feel it too. I don’t think I’m immune from it. I think we’re all suffering from this incredible overload of information that we have now in the 21st Century.

I don’t read nearly as much as I used to when I was a kid, and when I do read, I find it very hard to concentrate on a book for anything more than two or three pages. And that never used to be the case for me when I was a teenager, but now I find there’s so much distraction in the modern world that my concentration span is that much shorter, my attention span is that much shorter.

But at least I have some context for that and I remember how it used to be. For kids growing up now, being born into this world, that’s all they will ever know. This is a real deep concern for me, and that’s why I wanted to explore that subject in the album.

Do you feel like it’s an expansion on the theme of a sound like “The Sound Of Muzak” off of In Absentia?

Yes, absolutely. “Sound Of Muzak” was all about the overload of music, the proliferation of music, download culture and how all those things, genre and record company marketing tactics, MTV and all those things have gradually eroded away what’s so special about music and what was the soul of music. I suppose Fear Of A Blank Planet is an expansion of that idea in a way. It’s relating it more to all aspects of the world we live in and all aspects of life in the 21st Century rather than just specifically focusing on music.

How did the track ‘Anesthetize’ come about?

Originally, when I had the idea for the long-scale, continuous piece of music for the album, I was going to try to write everything as a development from a single idea. What I mean by that is I was going to come up with an original theme or an original musical idea and try to extrapolate the whole album out of that idea.

I thought at the time that was going to be the way to do it. As it was, I hit a brick wall at about 17 minutes (laughs), and that became the track ‘Anesthetize.’

I got to about the 17-minute mark, and it just seemed complete. I didn’t want to keep adding things to it. But that track was the first track written for the record, and that was the one where I did attempt that. That piece all grew from the one original theme, the one original harmonic chord progression, and everything in that track is extrapolated from that basic melody and that basic idea, but of course, by the end of the track, it’s morphed so much that it has no relation to that original idea. I like that concept. I like that idea.

It’s interesting to create and set parameters for yourself to write within, but it was a very painful process. It took me about a month just to write those 17 minutes of music.

Since it was first and the outcome from that writing experiment, is that what made you put it as the centerpiece of the album?

Yeah. It’s in the middle of the record and it’s obviously the longest piece. It’s probably got the most ideas and the most complexity in it, and I think for a lot of people, it’ll probably represent the highlight of the record. It was kind of the highlight for me.

Fear Of A Blank Planet is available now through Atlantic Records. Catch Porcupine Tree live at Nokia Theatre in NYC on May 19 and the Electric Factory in Philadelphia on May 23. For more info, check out