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PORCUPINE TREEJune 12, 2008 | Author: Jason McNamara

porctree1Despite a twenty year recording and performing career, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that UK progressive rock band Porcupine Tree finally broke the shackles of their the cult following status. Perhaps it was the synchronous acceptance of other experimental rock bands such as The Mars  Volta, Dream Theater, Coheed and Cambria, Spock’s Beard and Explosions in the Sky that legitimised the genre previously scorned upon, which finally allowed the pioneering Porcupine Tree to be heard on a mainstream level. The band, which is essentially guitarist/ vocalist Steve Wilson’s project, released the globally acclaimed album ‘Fear Of A Blank Planet’ last year and hasn’t looked back since. Rave reviews of their visually impressive shows and solid album sales meant that a promoter was finally confident enough to bring the band to Australia for the first time. Australian Musician’s Jason McNamara had been waiting a long time to see Porcupine Tree, and had plenty of questions to ask when he found the group at their Melbourne hotel. Photo by Marty Williams

ANZAC Day 2008. Yes, I should have been out honouring our troops, but you don’t get a chance like this every day. At 3pm in a Melbourne hotel lobby I got to spend some valuable time talking with singer/guitarist/song writer/producer Steven Wilson and touring guitarist/vocalist John Wesley from Porcupine Tree. Since forming the band two decades ago, Steven Wilson has gathered an outstanding wealth of talent around him consisting of mighty fine musicians. Now the question burns, how did the forming of such a powerful force come about?

JM: With the two of you here the question beckons, why isn’t John an official member of the band? Obviously you can do it all yourself, but I can’t help but be curious.

Steven Wilson: Well you’ve kind of answered your own question really. John came along basically to help perform the existing repertoire. ‘In Absentia’ the 3rd to last album was the one where the guitar started to become more integral to the sound in the sense that it was the introduction to the kind of more metallic edge to the sound. At the same time we lost our original drummer, (Chris Maitland) who had been the only other singer in the band. Gavin replaced Chris, but Gavin isn’t a singer so simultaneously there were two issues. The first issue was the increasing emphasis on guitar and interlocking guitar parts and the second issue was we lost our only other vocalist so the harmony vocals for live became an issue too. I’d known Wes, (he goes by “Wes” because his father is John Wesley Snr) for a few years. We’d both worked with an artist called Fish, (former singer from Marillion) at different times but we’d connected through that commonality. I always thought Wes would be perfect for it because he’s a great singer, he’s a great guitar player, but he’s also not un-used to the concept of being a hired hand/session player. It’s the best of all worlds really. As to why Wes isn’t a fulltime member of the band, I think a band is a very delicately balanced thing. The four of us are all from London, Wes is from Florida so there are some geographical reasons.

JM: So you are actually all London boys originally?

Steven: Well we’re all from in or just around London. I think there’s a very English sensibility about the band. There’s a sense that the band is very delicately balanced. The sound I think has really come into its own now and that’s really a product of the four people in the band. Wes fits in great, but at the same time he does have a different sensibility. If he wasn’t playing the Porcupine Tree parts that are on the record that I played, I think his inclination would be to do something a little bit different and that’s fine, that’s great you know. I think in that sense the relationship is perfect as it is. I’ve also helped Wes with his solo records and mixing it.

John Wesley: People ask me that question a lot and there’s a real dynamic in the four piece. To throw another element in there would upset that balance. Obviously a lot of people are like, “Dude, why is it like this?” and I tell them that there’s a dynamic that you just don’t wanna interrupt. I have a role to play and I think I play, I try to play that role very well.

JM: That’s great for all. How true do you feel you stay to Steven’s original studio parts?

Wes: Completely! (chuckles) As much as I’m capable. There are some things that he does very well, and as hard as I try I might not be able to copy his thing because it’s such a part of his personality, but I try to get as close as I can. He’s also very gracious, especially in the live setting, to allow my own playing style and my own personality to come through.

JM: So for example you got Alex Lifeson from Rush in to do the solo on Anesthetize from the latest album Fear Of A Blank Planet. Who does that solo live?

Wes: I do.

JM: Do you do it the same as Alex did?

Wes: I do it different every night.

JM: Do you start it out the same way and do the twin lead part together?

Steven: No, we don’t attempt to do the twin lead. I think Wes does a solo that is sympathetic to the Alex Lifeson style, but it’s completely his own. I think that’s true of all the solos he does. I let Wes take a lot of the solos that I played on the records. I’m not a soloist and I’m not really interested in being a solo guitar player. So Wes takes a lot of the solos and kind of references my solos, but makes them completely his own and I think that’s the best possible way.

JM: On your Myspace page there’s a great version of Lazarus with you two doing it live in a record store. It was amazing. Rumour has it that you’re going to release that. Is it true?

Steven: It’s been released as a “mail order” only CD. I don’t think we’ll do it full blown retail release. It’s one of those things that I think is great for the fans because it’s a different perspective on songs that they’re very familiar with. It was a very impromptu thing. I mean, we showed up at this record store not really knowing what to expect and the store was absolutely rammed. There was like, 300 people rammed into this tiny record store.

JM: Where was it?

Steven: It was in Orlando, Florida which is actually pretty local to Wes. We had originally thought we’d be able to do something with a few of the band members and when we saw the size of the stage we realized it was just going to have to be, effectively, the two of us.

JM: So it was almost off the cuff was it?

Steven: It was completely off the cuff and I just walked up there and played a few that, that…. Actually one that we’d never played live before ever you know, so we tried to make it a little bit special.

JM: Which song was that if I can ask?

Steven: It was a song called “Stars Die” which is a really old one and we’d never played it live. It had always been a favourite and I thought, well I’ll just do that and try to make it special. Wes came up and we did a few more songs. It just had a nice atmosphere and it came out so well and there was something unique about the whole event so we’ve done it as a mail order only.

JM: Gavin (Harrison) is seriously the most amazing drummer to hit the scene since I don’t know when. How did you find him and how did your relationship come about?

Steven: I’ve known Gavin for years, and you’re right by the way. He is one of the most amazing drummers.

JM: He won the Modern Drummer 2008 readers’ poll in the Prog category.

Steven: The thing about Gavin is that he’s been around for years doing what he does and you’re right. I think he’s one of the top drummers in the world right now, but not many people outside of the drum industry knew him because he’s been focused on being a session player.

porctree2JM: How was working with Opeth and can you tell me a little bit more about your production side?

Steven: Opeth was done a few years ago. I did 3 albums for them and I haven’t been able to do the last couple because I’ve been away on tour. How was it? It was fantastic! It was a very symbiotic thing in the sense that at the same time as they were looking to move into a more produced areas, more textural areas with Death Metal, I was integrating more Metal into Porcupine Tree so it really became a symbiotic thing where we were learning from each other. That experience of producing the first Opeth album I did, I took away with me when recording ‘In Absentia’ which was the next album I made straight after that. That was when the band started to move more towards a heavier sound. It was also symbiotic in the sense that the two bands’ followings began to discover each other. So like many Porcupine Tree fans who never thought they’d enjoy a Death Metal band and many Death Metal fans who never thought they’d enjoy, (he stops to think) a … whatever type of band Porcupine Tree are, were checking each other’s bands out. Now we have a very big crossover in the audience.

JM: Because of a musical similarity, you guys might really like an Australian band named Karnivool. They are similar to you in the sense that unlike some other bands out there today, your musicianship is not the song. It happens to feature within the song.

Steven: I checked out their myspace and I’ve listened to a couple of their songs. It reminds me a little of A Perfect Circle. We got invited to their show the other night, but unfortunately we were way too tired from out schedule. However I did go to the trouble of listening to them and they are really good. I believe they’re coming to our Brisbane show on Sunday and we’ll get to meet them anyway.

JM: You seem to have millions of side projects on. How do you find the time?

Steven: A lot of people ask me that question and to be honest it doesn’t seem strange to me. I very often throw it back to other musicians and say, ‘Well why don’t you make more music?’ I don’t understand why. You look at someone like Mike Patton for example who’s very musically hyperactive, Jim O’Rourke and I don’t understand why there aren’t a lot more. Being in one band doesn’t take all of your time. Even if Porcupine Tree is on tour 3 months of the year and in the studio for 3 months of the year, that still leaves 6 months of the year. What am I doing the rest of the time? I’m doing other music. I’m collaborating with other people, I’m producing, I’m mixing, I’m writing with other musicians and it doesn’t seem strange to me.

JM: I’d like to ask you Wes, aside from Porcupine Tree, what else do you do outside of this band?

Wes: Umm, wife and kid (laughs). I do solo stuff. My stuff was similar to Porcupine Tree before I joined up with Steven. My wife was one of their biggest fans. I’d known about them since about ’95 and I’d had a couple of discs and she found one one day and she put it in and said, “These guys are fabulous”. I do a lot of other things like session work, a lot of engineering. I did an album with Fish. I live in Florida and a lot of the really high profile session work happens in Nashville and LA. At home I do a lot of recording and that takes a lot of my
time up.

JM: You guys are almost the Bad Cat Amplifier poster boys.  How did you first hear about Bad Cat and become interested in them? (Steven points to Wes).

Wes: I was using Matchless and I wanted something more aggressive. Then I heard that Mark Samson from Matchless had aligned with James from Bad Cat. Steven called me looking for a good amp and I recommended the Bad Cat.

JM: Which model did you have in the beginning?

Wes: We both had Hot Cats. I still have a couple of Hot Cats and he’s using the Lynx. I’m using the lynx on this Australian tour. They’re great. It’s like plug in and go! I would probably always tour with one except that I’d sound too much like him.

JM: You obviously need to use effects live to recreate studio sounds and the Lynx doesn’t have an FX Loop so how do you rig them up?

Steven: We both do it the same way. One of the good things about the Bad Cat Amps is that the Clean channel and the Distortion channel are both simultaneously active so what both of us use a switching system to have sounds that go through the clean channel which have artificial processing and then sounds that go through the distorted channel. I use the T.C. G Major system and I also have a Gig Rig as well. Wes has a Gig Rig too. I also have the Bad Cat X-Treme Tone pedal so it enables me to put distortion through the clean channel with things like delay on the back end of it.

JM: In songs like Blackest Eyes there’s acoustic guitar as well as a wall of distorted electric guitars. Are you using piezo pickups on your Paul Reed Smith guitars?

Wes: Steven doesn’t, but I do.

JM: What got you into using piezo pickups and when did you get your first piezo loaded guitar?

Wes: Alex Lifeson! Yep. I saw him do it and I was like, “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen”. I also use electric and the acoustic piezo sound at the same time. I blend them together. I started using piezos when I was working with Fish back in ‘97/’98. I saw Alex using one on a PRS back then and that was it. I found out that you could get them for a Tele or a Les Paul because I didn’t have a PRS at the time. I had to sell my PRS because I was a broke single father (he starts laughing) so I had to sell my guitar.

JM: Of course I have to ask you, you both use Bad Cat and you both use PRS. Did that happen on purpose or was it a total coincidence?

Wes: Definitely on purpose. It’s a must for this kind of music. I got into PRS in 1987. I was touring a lot with bands back then. I’ve been doing this for many years, but only as a hired gun. I was always playing PRS up into the mid 90’s. Like I said I was doing the single father thing, I was broke as shit and my PRS guitar was the most valuable guitar I had, so I sold both of them. I had an old ’71 Tele I kept and a Les Paul that was a gift from a friend. Then when I joined this band I was using my Les Paul and Steve was playing a PRS and I did the first In Absentia tour with the Les Paul. So I saved up a little money and went out and bought a PRS with a bolt on neck. Later I called PRS. I spoke to Wayne Krozack and he had just taken over as the artist rep and I said that I wanted to play this guitar live with this band Porcupine Tree and I needed a piezo for it. I said, “Sorry I can’t help you because we don’t sell them separately, but we do have them in these guitars called the McCarty Archtop so let’s arrange you to get one of those”. I mean, it’s the perfect guitar for this gig. That tour when I got that McCarty, that particular tour, the Deadwing tour was a very difficult gig and that guitar so saved my ass. We developed a relationship and the guitar I’m using now was totally built to my specs. It’s a single cut with a piezo tremolo bridge. He had done a prototype with only one piezo trem and when I’d mentioned that I’d like to get one he did me the favour or putting on a guitar for me. It is magic.

JM: So you have the first ever Paul Reed Smith in the world with a piezo built into the tremolo?

Wes: Yeah. The only one. I hope they do a production model because it’s just fantastic. It sounds great. It’s the best piezo system.

JM: Do you use an external preamp with that?

Wes: I go straight to the PA from the guitar. PRS puts a really nice system in there. It has dual output jack. A magnetic for the electric pickups and the piezo output for the acoustic sound. My Les Paul has a piezo where they share one stereo jack, but this is fantastic. This PRS is just fantastic. I have 3 PRS guitars out here on tour with me. I have a Gold Top McCarty, a Flame Top McCarty and this beautiful prototype.

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