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Interview with Richard Barbieri of Porcupine Tree

Interview written and conducted by Chris Slack on 06/04/2005 in Seattle at the Crocodile Cafe

Chris Slack: All right, How's the U.S. Tour going so far?

Richard Barbieri: Very Good. Very different, like in Europe really. A lot more of the shows are sold out, much more diverse audience, a lot younger people coming. Just seems like it's a big step up, really.

CS: Seems kind of crazy. I would think a European tour would be bigger and more well attended and everything. That comes as a surprise to me.

RB: Yeah. The European Tour was amazing. Virtually every venue was sold out. And we kind of got a feeling it's going to be good in the states as well and we found that.

CS: Excellent. So say somebody has never heard Porcupine Tree before. How would you describe the group and the music?

RB: Well, it's rock music, but with a more eclectic slant . Maybe experimental is too strong a word, but I would say it's alternative rock music.

CS: Very good. New album, "Deadwing" it's really good. It's been in my CD player pretty much non-stop since I got an advance copy of it. How would you describe the album and the songs.

RB: Well, it's not vastly different than "In Absentia" but there are a few different elements. And there's a slightly, let's say a more extreme rock element. I think in places it's pretty heavy. But this diversity that you always get with Porcupine Tree, it has some very textural, beautiful passages and parts. I think the main difference is the way the album was made. With "In Absentia" we went to a studio and we did the whole thing in a very conventional sense. With this album it was done over a longer period of time. There was a lot more group kind of sessions. There's more group compositions and I think because there was a political thing at Warner Brothers, there was some kind of takeover that stalled the album. It gave us more time to, I don't know, possibly perfect things and try a lot more things than we normally would.

CS: And it came out really good.

RB: Yeah. I think it was an album that wasn't under pressure of any kind. We could kind I suppose indulge ourselves a bit more.

CS: This is the second album with Lava/Atlantic. How are they working out for you when compared with previous labels? Are you happy with the promotional support they are giving you and stuff?

RB: Yeah. I guess we would never have had such exposure in America without this label. It's enabled us to come over and tour and kind of build a fan base here. So that's very important. Also they can get tracks to radio and shops, whatever, the whole industry thing. That's different. As regards to being a label, they've been good with us so far. They've given us kind of a lot of freedom. We haven't been pressurized into making any particular kind of music. We're quite happy for them to choose singles, if they think there's a single.

CS: Like with "Shallow"?

RB: Yeah. I think on every Porcupine Tree album there's a couple of tracks that seem to be possibly singles. And no complaints, really. No complaints at all.

CS: Excellent. So have all the Porcupine Tree albums been produced by Steven Wilson or have there ever been any other hands involved in the production?

RB: Well, I mean on the sleeve notes you've probably noticed additional production by Richard Barbieri and Gunnar Harrison? Which you didn't see on the sleeve notes, obviously. So yeah, we had more of a hand in it

CS: Basically the whole band rather than any outside parties coming in.

RB: Steven started the whole thing and it's grown from there. And he's overall direction guides the project. But I think you need that anyway. I think if you've got four people who are all on exactly the same level in terms of production you could come out with a real mess, you know. That works well. There's definitely lot more than the band, production wise, arrangement wise than ever before.

CS: Excellent. Not counting any other music out there in the world right now, where do you all get your inspiration for the music and lyrics?

RB: Well, we're all very different. I mean, personally, my inspiration doesn't actually come from music. I mean I love listening to music, but the artists I enjoy aren't necessarily an influence on what I do, you know. I like to listen to like quite extreme electronic music, Aphex Twin, I listen to Neil Young. It doesn't necessarily mean there's an influence.

CS: Right. That's why I was going "Apart from other musician's music."

RB: My thing really is kind of places, emotions, atmospheres, sounds, abstract sounds you find anywhere. I've kind of replicated sounds I've heard from airports, from being in very weird places. From sounds you get from the elements. It sounds a bit pretentious, but kind of a start point for sounds in an idea. So I think those kind of things influence me, I mean Steve listens to a hell of a lot of music. I mean all day, right up to when we go on stage usually and then afterwards. So I think he's getting kind of influences from a lot of very funny and diverse sources.

CS: There hasn't been a lot of talk about it lately, as there has been, say, a year ago or whatever, but what is your feeling on the downloadable music on the internet? Do you have any issues with fans sharing the many out of print albums rather than paying the exorbitant prices on eBay or lining the pockets of the Russian bootleggers?

RB: I'm told that it doesn't really affect us too badly, in that Porcupine Tree fans generally want the product. They want the album. I guess the whole thing with us is that we're still into a seventies ethic as an album as a piece of art, whether it's the packaging, the running order, the artwork, the way everything is sequenced. That for us is important and I think for our fans as well because a lot of them are collectors and they like to have everything. I think they probably still prefer to go and have the album. You know, obviously, Brittany Spears, Christine Aguilara, there's a track you really like and you download it. You don't really need to get into the whole history, the whole, you know. I'm not sure it's affected us too badly. Personally, I don't do it. I'm not into it. There's no excitement for me or joy in downloading a file. I like going to a record shop.

CS: Likewise.

RB: The thing of the journey there to find something, going home. Having something in my hands, reading the lyrics, probably how I was when I was very young and I've never lost that kind of enjoyment.

CS: You've got, at least it seems to me, a growth in popularity over the past four or five years. Would you consider that somewhat due to Mr. Wilson producing the Opeth albums and Michael Akerfeldt's contributions to the latest Porcupine Tree album and the intermingling.

RB: Yeah. We're not too sure but there is a theory possibly we're getting a younger audience because a lot of the kids are into Opeth and kind of metal with a more open mind to try something else, they're kind of getting into us as well. So maybe it's possible we have Nine Inch Nails fans or Opeth fans. I mean we're not hard core and we're not full on in one direction but maybe there's parts of what we do that appeals to this kind of people. It could be that. It could be that it's getting played on radio more.

CS: When you work in a studio how is everything done? Do you record the songs from start, the beginning, piece by piece? Do you use click tracks?

RB: Yeah. It was different this time. It was a little bit of everything, really. There were some group jamming sessions where we would work very quickly together in the same room and instead of just going on some space rock exploration on two poles we would come up with ideas and move on quickly to something else. And we would start thinking hang on, this section works but let's condense it. How can we move on from this? And we would kind of be disciplined and squeeze more of this arrangement and these ideas into a shorter period of time. Because jamming can be a very thankless task in a way. Because it can sound good but eventually there's no kind of discipline or direction. So that's what we did with about five or six of the tracks. The other tracks were more traditional in the sense that we had a demo, we had a song, we had an arranged piece of music they gave to us and we worked from it from there. There were a couple of things myself and Gavin brought in that we already recorded and sections of that we used in song tracks. So it is varied this time. No one method particularly.

CS: Does anybody in the band play X-box? I'm asking this because "Strip the Soul" was on the soundtrack of the Project Gothem Racing 2 Video Game.

RB: Was it? No.

CS: That's something I didn't see in that huge Steven Wilson discography or anywhere else.

RB: No. No. No.

CS: I was wondering if anyone was a gamer or anything?

RB: No, not at all. I guess what happened the publisher's found somewhere to place it. Well. I didn't know about that.

CS: What do you do for fun other than all the musical projects and the touring and the recording and everything?

RB: That does take up most of the time. But my particular hobby is tennis. I play a lot of tennis. I play quite seriously. So I go to competitions and tournaments and stuff. It's kind of amateur but I win a few trophies here and there.

CS: It keeps you fit.

RB: Yeah.

CS: From what I've read there's at least Steven is a big fan of cinema and films and such? Are you big into cinema or anything like that?

RB: Absolutely. I spent most of my childhood in kind of Art house cinemas, you know, watching Luis Bunel and Orson Welles, Jodarowsky, Tarkovsky.

CS: More into the surreal filmmakers?

RB: Absolutely. The one thing Porcupine Tree always wanted, their ambition is to actually get our music into a movie. I don't know if it will happen but it seems we've got the tools to do it.

CS: The music fits. I mean a lot of the songs would go really well along with film.

RB: Yeah, Yeah.

CS: Are you guys satisfied with your current, although it's growing, status as underground icons or do you wish you were more popular than Jesus Christ?

RB: Well, you always want things to be more successful, but then I think in a way you have to look at success in your own terms and to me success has always been being able to be a musician and to make records and have a certain amount of success doing it. And that would be my life style. So you know, to most people that's a dream. We haven't got any crazy ambition that we need to be more popular or whatever. I mean it's always been going up and it's great. I'm happy with the way things have gone so far. I don't know what …I'm really quite happy to take success. I can definitely handle it. Although, a lot of the fans don't like it.

CS: Yeah, if people get success, they claim it's not allowed. They're changing to become more popular.

RB: It's all these other people who like this group. I was the same when I was a kid. If I found an album, I loved it. I really didn't want too many people to be into it. I wanted it to be personal to me.

CS: Stops being your own special thing.

RB: Exactly.

CS: Right. Right. I think that's probably about it. The rest of my questions are pretty generic and I'm not going to waste your time with them. Do you have any last words for my readers who do mostly comprise a heavy metal based audience?

RB: Aw! Okay. Yeah, well, just hope they're not too disappointed. The thing about Porcupine Tree is that a lot of fans have a kind of lifestyle that's very connected to their music you know like Nine Inch Nails for example or some real heavy bands, Opeth, Meshuggah. These guys they actually live the same kind of life so their fans live the same kind of thing as them. You know what I mean. The image is there, it's all very kind of set out. You know, you've got the tattoos, you've got the drinking, you've got drugs, whatever. It's a kind of thing. But I think what people maybe look up to the stage when we're playing some real heavy stuff, "Who are these guys? They're not like me. They're not living this kind of life style." That occurs to me. I think it's the group strength as well in a way. Do you know what I mean? You know I used to be a band called Japan. Which was a kind of glam, hair, makeup, the whole thing and we actually lived that style, that was it. You got up in the morning, all the makeup would go on. That would be the way you dress, you went to certain clubs, you had a certain life style. And the fans came to see you and they would dress the same as you and it was very set out. You know, that was it. You were a fan of this band and that's the way you are. But with Porcupine Tree the audience is really diverse.

CS: As is your music.

RB: And we don't conform necessarily to any type of character, type of dress, type of code which makes me wonder sometimes when a Meshuggah fan comes to check our Porcupine Tree. You know they look up at the stage and I just wonder what they think.

CS: When you came around with Opeth last time in Seattle, I think you probably converted quite a few people over to your camp who went there to see Opeth. Personally I had a lot of friends who were there who had never heard of you or anything and were rather just blown away with the music and all the feelings and layers and everything that was in it.

RB: A group we admire very much is Tool and we like the whole way they kind of present themselves in a way. You look at the stage and you can't quite see who is who, what's going on. You know what I mean?

CS: Absolutely.

RB: The singer is at the back, kind of side on, everything moves around a little bit, you've just got this amazing show and the music. And the kids are just really into it, but it's great because there's no kind of star thing. It's music and it's presentation that works really well. So in our small way, our production is getting better.

CS: You won't see it in that size of venue (gesturing at the Crocodile)?

RB: No. But in Chicago we played Park West and we had the three screens and the whole thing as we wanted to. It's great.

CS: It's too bad we couldn't get that here. There should be room for at least one screen.

RB: There is. Laughter.

CS: Thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to us.

RB: It's a pleasure.

Photos from the show are available here

Live review can be found here

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