The lines between journalist and fanboy are pretty blurry sometimes. When I got the oppurtinity to talk to Porcupine Tree‘s Richard Barbieri about the band’s first new album in 13 years, it targeted my fanboy heart quite a bit. After all, Porcupine Tree are integral to my own musical DNA – the band was one of the major players getting me into progressive rock when I was young(er). They are also one of the few bands I’ve been listening to regularly for at least 15 years.
To be honest, I didn’t expect the band to come back at all. Steven Wilson seemed to be very busy with his solo stuff, and both Barbieri and Gavin Harrison were involved with several projects. The announcement of CLOSURE // CONTINUATION, the band’s 11th studio album, was a surprise, but obviously a welcome one. My anticipation skyrocketed with each new single, and when I (virtually) sat down with Barbieri early May when the band was in Berlin, after spending a weekend with CLOSURE // CONTINUATION, I tried my best to balance my journalistic duty and my childish sense of wonder…
Everything Is Noise: Thanks for taking the time and sitting down with me, even if it’s virtually. But I think we can make the best out of it. We will get right in. What I think is one of the most important questions at the beginning: how are you and do you enjoy your day in Berlin? (Editor’s note: the band was in Berlin for a press day)
Richard Barbieri: Yeah, it’s a nice day. We had a walk earlier when we had some lunch and yeah, it’s been good. Good questions. Lovely, lovely new Sony building. Very nice atmosphere.
EIN: I think the main event of the whole conversation is the new record, Everyone is super excited for the new record, myself included. I’ve had the pleasure of spending the whole weekend listening to the new album, and as long-time Porcupine Tree fan, it felt like coming home. It had a really comfortable and homey feeling to it, and I felt like back in my teenage days, basically, enjoying my first steps into progressive rock through Porcupine Tree. So that was really nice. And it made me think: how it was for you to come back working with Porcupine Tree after all those years?
RB: I didn’t know when it was going to happen because my timeline was a bit different to Steven and Gavin’s. They started working together and writing in around 2012 with Steven playing bass and composing on bass, and they got together three or four songs at that point. And then, of course, during these 10, 11 years, everybody’s been doing other things, so you leave it behind for a year or two. And then they did some more. I sent some things to Steven various times, but then probably around about 2015/16, they sent me some more material and then I started to think more seriously about this and I started writing, sending ideas to Steven. So it’s just been very gradual.
I thought the group was finished and even when they were writing together, I still thought it might not happen. But with Steven’s tour being postponed for his last album and the lockdown, it just made us kind of look ahead and concentrate on that and everything accelerated. And then we kind of knew that we were very near in the end of this piece, and we’re really happy with it. As you say, it’s Porcupine Tree, but it still has a fresh difference to it, and we’re still trying to describe it ourselves. You know, while we’re doing these interviews there, the interviewers are coming up with their opinions, and they’re all good opinions. And we’re thinking ‘yeah, maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that‘. I mean, there’s only three people on the album. That’s different than any other Porcupine Tree album. There’s no other musicians or orchestration. So you’re down to the very core. The songs are co-written. This is the first time that it’s a band collaboration throughout the album. So that’s a big difference. I don’t know it. It has the DNA of Porcupine Tree, though.
EIN: I think it’s always a combination of the time you already spent together as a band and the experiences you’ve made along the way with your own solo material, for example, or other projects. And I think it sounds like it, like it sounds contemporary, but also classic. That’s a very interesting thing to achieve, like balancing both.
You already told me that the process was different this time. Can you maybe elaborate a little bit on that, how the whole process of creating a new record changed compared to the times you’ve already recorded together like 15 years ago?
RB: Well, I mean, the modus operandi in the past was that Steven would usually write 75, 80% of an album, and then we would collaborate on the other 20%. And the songs that he did write, he would send pretty much finished demos, with nearly finished arrangements, and we would then add our parts and add arrangement ideas, but it was never fully integrated as a band as such. Whereas with this album, it’s completely different. The songs were co-written. And I think you can hear what songs are written by what members of the group. I think it’s easy to know that I worked with Steven on “Dignity” and “Walk the Plank”, which is kind of over to one side of the Porcupine Tree spectrum. And it’s easy to understand that tracks like “Harridan” and “Chimera’s Wreck” were written with Gavin. It’s a combination of the complex, inventive drumming of Gavin, the more textural, ambient sound design from me, and all the middle from Stephen’s ability to bring everything together with songwriting skills.
EIN: I can definitely hear that. Over the last weekend, I listened to your records with Steve Jensen and Steve Hogan you did in the last ten years, and also to the Variants EPs you did. I’ve heard a bit from this material in the new album, so it’s a bit different from what I’m used to, texture-wise. And I was pretty curious how all the stuff you did in the past ten years musically influenced the new record. So, how does your work with Porcupine Tree influence your solo work, or your work with other people, and vice versa?
RB: Regardless of who I work with, I tend to have the same process. But it’s the context that changes. So I might be working with jazz musicians, rock musicians, or pop musicians, but my process is the same. I’m coming from an area where the prime interest is the atmosphere, the emotion, and the sound design, so I try to incorporate that into these scenarios. And then, because of the context, it might sound different, but it’s still the same process. I think I’ve been doing the same things all my career, to be honest. Probably because my earliest influence was Brian Eno when he worked with Roxy Music, and I realised then that you could introduce kind of abstract sound into pop music. That was a big breakthrough.
But also I think my main influence is from when I was very young and I used to listen to the radio in bed underneath the covers and turn in the channels, and listening to Radio Luxembourg and Radio Caroline. And the tuning was really bad on this radio, and you would kind of get to a point where I’d hear something and it’d be really interesting, but then I realised it was two stations playing at the same time. So one would be this kind of voice or something and the other would be this beautiful kind of Chinese music, and they were blended to make this track that I thought was amazing. And that, again, is what I love: when you take something abstract and you place it in another context and it works, that’s a success for me.
EIN: And I think that’s something you can not only hear on the new record, but also on your solo work and the other Porcupine Tree records. There is an accessibility to it, and I think even people that are not super familiar with more experimental music can get something out of it. But it’s also so rich in details that people who are a little bit more obsessive with more experimental music can find a good place to discover new stuff.
Speaking of which, the process of creating music together is different than it previously was. You already said that you were sending material back and forth… but do you guys come together in the rehearsal space before you go in the studio? Or is it only virtually?
RB: For me, it was virtually because of the lockdown. And then before that, Gavin worked with Steven in his studio. But recently we’ve come together in a studio to play through these songs, and we’ve made some films of those. And a couple of weeks ago we invited the musicians who are going to be playing with us on stage to come to rehearsals and to play the new material. So we played the whole album with these new musicians, and it worked really well. All the songs translate well to the live arena, so we’re quite confident it’s going to sound good.
EIN: Obvious question, but do you have a favorite track on CLOSURE // CONTINUATION?
RB: Yeah, it sounds immodest to say, but probably the tracks that I was involved in, because obviously I relate to them the most. So I think we spoke about “Dignity” before, but the track “Walk the Plank” is very towards the outer skirts, the outer limits of what Porcupine Tree do. Far more electronic – there’s no guitar at all, and I think it has a more of a contemporary feel. I think it’s obvious it was written in the last two or three years. I don’t think that would have been written in 2012. So I like that idea of trying to push the boundaries, because Porcupine Tree has like a boundary that we work within because of our influences and our tastes together. There’s only so much that we can agree on, but it’s nice to take these things to the edge and to see if you can push the boundaries of it and still keep it sounding like Porcupine Tree.
EIN: Maybe a quick follow-up question: so you feel kind of a responsibility towards the fans who expect certain sound out of you, and then next to your own influences and your own history as a band, is this shaping some of those boundaries?
RB: Well, we don’t think so. Sorry to say, but we don’t think about the fans when we make the album. Yeah, we’re just consumed with it ourselves and trying to be happy with it ourselves. That’s the challenge to write music that you’re proud of and that you think can stand the test of time. And then you throw it out there and you hope that the fans will respond. So yes, it matters what they think. It’s nice if I think it sounds like Porcupine Tree and it’s what they want, but we don’t consider them when we’re making it.
EIN: Probably the healthier approach to doing things.
RB: I think so, yeah. I think because if you start trying to write for other people’s tastes, then you kind of lose something in the process yourself.
EIN: I want to close with one last question that’s looking into the future a little bit. So the announcement of the new record and the first singles made a lot of fans eager for new material. At the moment, you’re focused on the release of the record and then preparing to tour. But are there any further plans beyond that? I think I’ve read that this would be the only tour, or at least it’s planned to be the only tour. Are there plans or even ideas that Porcupine Tree will continue in any shape or form?
RB: No, we really don’t know. It’s either closure or it’s continuation, and we’re happy with both, to be honest. But, you know, we don’t plan these things, so it’s hard to say. Who knows? I think probably these might be the last concerts. Maybe not the last recording. I don’t know. As you know, from experience, whenever anyone says anything, it’s it always proves to be wrong. You know, you can’t predict these things.
EIN: I think that’s the magic of it. Catching your guys on tour as the last opportunity to do so.
RB: I would recommend that people come and see the show.
EIN: I will.
RB: And we purposely played not too many shows because we want to give 100% for every show and make it really important. You know, if we decided to tour for three or four months, you just get tired and you can’t focus anymore and you can’t give your best everywhere. So we did it this way so that every city, every place we play will get the best possible performance that we can give.
EIN: That sounds great. Thank you for your time, I hope the rest of your day will be relatively relaxed.
RB: Thank you!