Just file under ...? This band defies easy labels
Porcupine Tree mixes metal, banjos, and Beach Boys-style vocals.
The annals of rock 'n' roll are filled with some truly peculiar band names - think Prefab Sprout, Spandau Ballet, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and well, A-ha.
Then there's the Zappa-esque moniker that British rocker Steven Wilson chose for a hobby band he started in 1987: Porcupine Tree.
Mr. Wilson, the kind of studio auteur who writes all the songs, plays all the instruments, acts as producer, and probably makes the tea as well, created Porcupine Tree as a lark, a way to amuse himself in between writing music for his main musical outlet, a British art-pop trio called No-Man.
In the early '90s, No-Man seemed destined for serious record-rack stock rotation, when it was signed to the same independent record label as Björk.
As for the solo project seemingly named after a bioengineered cactus, Wilson's Pink Floyd-like guitar meditations on top of ambient dreamscapes and dance beats found a small audience in Britain's underground psychedelic music scene.
Today, in a "Freaky Friday"-type switch, No-Man is now Wilson's side project. It's the even-more-experimental Porcupine Tree, now a four-piece, that has a major contract with Lava - a division of Atlantic records. This week, it started a tour across the US in support of its album, "In Absentia."
"As Porcupine Tree has become really my primary concern, No-Man has kind of taken a back seat in a way," says Wilson. "Lava have been completely supportive of the whole ideology of [Porcupine Tree], which is that we do not make cheesy pop singles. We're not really the kind of band that you can, with any ease at all, get through to the mainstream."
What makes Porcupine Tree difficult to market in an era of compartmentalized radio genres is that the band's unique, yet ever-evolving, sound is difficult to pin down. The music on "In Absentia" incorporates Metallica-heavy riffs, a banjo-driven hoedown, ethereal washes, Nick Drake melancholy, and vocal harmonies influenced by that other Wilson, Brian.
Porcupine Tree stress that, despite their musical diversity, the band's records are never just a collection of songs. "The band has a lot more in common with what people used to do in the late '60s and '70s, in that we're interested in people sitting down and listening to a whole 60-minute piece of work, an album," Wilson says. "The main problem we have ... is that people just don't have the attention span to do that in the 21st century."
More than ever, music has to compete with other forms of leisure, from videogames to TV, says Wilson. "Porcupine Tree are not the kind of band that can be represented in three minutes. And we do live, unfortunately, in a culture where it's all about the mouse click, it's all about the sound bite, it's all about the three-minute video clip."
In an iTune era, those comments might make Wilson sound like a Luddite. But the guitarist, a man who is as lean as the neck of his Fender Stratocaster and wears Lennon shades behind his long fringe, isn't one for standing still. If anything, he wishes people weren't so staid in their listening habits. "It's very hard to reach people who, perhaps, have slightly lost their interest in music. They're too busy buying their Pink Floyd reissues, so how do you get them listening to new music?"
While his musical tastes range from ABBA to Zeppelin, to contemporaries such as Massive Attack and Meshuggah, Wilson has been influenced by avant-garde sounds. His knack for tapping into underground music stems from the musical archaeology he practiced as a teen, seeking out the records that influenced the artists he was listening to. Similarly, "I think it's always the curious people who have discovered Porcupine Tree," he says.
Until now, that is. Lava records, impressed by the fan base built over a decade through word of mouth, is working to introduce the band to a wider audience.
"The one thing I think we all get a buzz out of - the record label and the band - is we know that whatever happens, we're trying to do something that is worthwhile," says the band leader. "And if we fail, we fail having tried to do something that's really trying to enrich the musical landscape."