Unfashionable, Uncompromising: A Chat With Porcupine Tree's Richard Barbieri

by Mark Kadzielawa

Porcupine Tree is truly a cult band, making uncompromising music that puts them in the position of being an alternative to alternative. Many influences are evident when listening to band's recordings; everyone should be able to find something they like here. The only problem -- and many good bands face this particular issue -- is getting exposure to a wider audience. Porcupine Tree is slowly overcoming this difficulty as they're getting some promotional push from Atlantic/Lava, with whom they recently signed. And there's always the word of mouth , which got Porcupine Tree to its current level over the last decade.

Porcupine Tree is a very innovative band, a group where the possibilities appear endless. The band is making steady progress as songwriters without compromising the initial vision established by the early albums. The new album In Absentia is a great example of how flexible Porcupine Tree has become while maintaining their credibility. No matter what the trends are, this group has stayed true to their vision, and for that they should be applauded.

Keyboard player Richard Barbieri talks about how things have changed for the band over the last couple of months, and explains what makes Porcupine Tree work so well.

Mark Kadzielawa / The Daily Vault: How did you get involved with Atlantic?

Richard Barbieri:
I think they knew about us for a while. There were couple of people working at the label in high positions that liked the band. I think over the last few years we've done quite well in Europe. We made some demos, and they were sounding a lot more accessible than our previous material. So Atlantic decided to make it work. We are little bit different than other Atlantic/Lava acts. They have artists like Kid Rock or Uncle Cracker who are very different from we're doing. On the other hand, there were many bands good bands who got lost on a major label. Bands like Porcupine Tree don't have that instant top 40 drive, and that's what the labels are looking for these days. I think there's that possibility of commercial success. For example, Radiohead made very experimental albums, very inaccessible in a lot of ways. They had a number one album in states, which is quite interesting. So, we think it's a possibility, but it's not our concern where the music is gonna fit or how it's gonna go. We just love making the music. We're kind of group who gets obsessive fans, and they bring fans the next time. It's been like that in Europe, and I think it kind of spread quite far. I think they're hoping we'll be a band with longevity.

Do you think Radiohead's surprising success opened doors for bands like Porcupine Tree?

I think so. Also, I think rock music is doing well now. America is turning back to rock music again, and a lot of this new album is quite heavy. We're also, finding a lot of heavy metal magazines and fans getting into us. It's quite a change for us. There are many bands who are into us, and spread the word as well. I think it can work on a lot of levels.

Do you have any personal expectations for the new album?

I think we wanted variety of people to get into it. We don't just like playing for the progressive fans. Some of the music is very progressive, but some of it is quite heavy, some of it is rock. Some of our songs are very delicate, close to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. I think we're looking for a very diverse audience.

Your writing is very complex. How do you write a crafty Porcupine Tree song?

Well, Steven (Wilson) is the principal songwriter in the band. He generally writes 80 % of the album, although we all do whatever we need to do. Steven usually comes up with a song or arrangement. Then, we usually go into the residential studio, and try what works best, and what doesn't. When we got a good idea, we work very fast. This album took only three weeks to record. The quality is very amazing. But, it comes from Steven because he's singing the lyrics, and the meaning has to be there for him to start with.


Porcupine Tree's Richard Barbieri (above) and Steven Wilson (right)


You've mentioned Steven as the principal writer. How much artistic freedom do you have within the band?

Well, we have artistic freedom within our own parts that we play. I'm completely free to try whatever I want. I can change the direction or the style if I think the song needs it. If I only had Porcupine Tree I would be little bit frustrated, but I have many other projects that I do. I have my own albums, my own label, and there are a lot of other people I work with. I can express myself more. You see, the thing with Porcupine Tree is not about us going crazy, and turning it into our own kind of ego things. It's really about trying to work on these concise arrangements. Sometimes when I don't hear a need for me being in a particular bar I won't force anything. It's about properly working the songs. It's more of a challenge that way. When you think of the Beach Boys track "God Only Knows," imagine what that has in it. There's a lot going on there, and the song is only 2.5 minutes long. What skills to produce that much in such a short time frame -- that's genius. For us it's easy to do a 25-minute piece that rumbles, and goes here and there. We can do that with our eyes closed, so it's a challenge to really make a great song.

Are you into Brain Wilson?

Not particularly myself, Steven is really into him heavy duty. I can appreciate it, and the track I mentioned earlier is one of myfavorite songs of all times. You can say the same thing about the Beatles or the Byrds. There's the kind of skills in crafting the song and an interesting arrangements.

Porcupine Tree is almost a decade old as a group. What do you think you've contributed to the scene?

I wonder, we've always been very unfashionable. I don't think we've been written about until maybe the last year or so. The English press is very fashion conscious. We're extremely unfashionable. We once sent an album to NME (New Music Express -- Ed.) to review I think, and we got a letter back from the editor. It said I know who you are, I know that you have a cult following, but we're really not interested in your crap, and we're not gonna write about you. That's a letter from the editor could you believe that? That's incredible. I don't think we contributed anything, except to the people who have heard our music, and followed us along with us.

Do you have any long-term goals?

Not really, I think for us the joy is able to make music as a living. I've been doing it since I was 17.5 years old. I joined the band, Japan, when I left school. That was my first group. By the time that band split up, I was 23 years old. That band had a good career, albums, tours. I think it's hard sometimes to remain in the scene, but that's the success to me. I like being able to make music without too much interference from anything else.

Your music comes across sounding very serious. Does that reflect your personalities? Is there a silly side to the band?

It's constant jokes, when we're touring. We don't actually socialize that much because we're constantly touring, or see each other in the studio. We need a break from each other. It's constant sarcastic humor. We've each been labeled this very specific personality, and it's hard to get out of that. We're each have our own thing that we bring into the band. We're very different from each other.

You went through a drummer change recently -- what happened?

I won't go into too much because it's kind of unfortunate, really. It's a shame, Chris (Maitland) was with us for 8 years, and was very much a part of the band. Certain things were happening that were making it very difficult for him to be part of it, culminating in something that made impossible for him to immediately record the album. We're friends, and see each other, but something had to happen. I had worked with Gavin (Harrison) on number of projects, and knew how good he was. Steven had to hear him play to know if he was the right person. After about ten minutes of playing with Gavin, Steven knew that he was the right person for the band, and he could do it. The only difference is that Gavin came from more of a session background than a group. He's definitely getting into that. Musically, he's in there right from the start.

Many thanks to Richard Barbieri of Porcupine Tree for speaking with The Daily Vault.

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