Ours is an age in which instant gratification is never more than a few mouse clicks away, and that doesn't sit well with Porcupine Tree mastermind Steven Wilson. He thinks all this technology business is going to end up biting society in its proverbial butt. And it's this fear that helped shape the concept of the forthcoming Fear of a Blank Planet, due in stores April 24.
"You can take the title quite literally," said Wilson, who has fronted the British prog-rockers for nearly 20 years. "My fear is that the current generation of kids who're being born into this information revolution, growing up with the Internet, cell phones, iPods, this download culture, 'American Idol,' reality TV, prescription drugs, PlayStations — all of these things kind of distract people from what's important about life, which is to develop a sense of curiosity about what's out there."
He said that when he was a youngster, his parents feared that television would distract him in the same way, but that parents these days need to be "concerned about the impact this massive explosion of information technology is going to have on their children."
While most would argue that having unlimited access to information at the touch of a button is a good thing, Wilson foresees a generalized complacency taking hold.
"I think it's one of the unfortunate things about human nature, that the easier things come to us, the less we tend to appreciate them," he said. "Right now, we have a situation where music is so easily available — and for free — that I don't think people really value it the way I valued music as a kid. If everything is so easily available, it almost becomes white noise, everything from music to movies to pornography, which is a great example. When I was 14, I didn't even know what a naked woman looked like. Now, a 5-year-old can go on the Internet and get access to pornography. It's almost like everything has become so easily accessible that none of it means anything anymore. These kids will grow up without any sense of curiosity or motivation, and they'll grow up without a soul, or a real sense of who they are."
Fear of a Blank Planet, the follow-up to 2005's Deadwing, is a 50-minute suite of six tracks that features guest spots from Rush's Alex Lifeson and King Crimson's Robert Fripp. Wilson said the LP is more potent than any of the Tree's previous offerings. "It's a very intense listen," he admitted. "There isn't really any what you would call 'light relief' on this record in terms of songs you could take out and kind of get played on the radio. It's very intense, it's very dark, and it's really taking the whole idea of album-oriented rock music to the next level.
"It was very much conceived in the way bands used to conceive of records in the '70s, where you've got two sides of vinyl, and you can lay down a piece of music which is around the 50-minute mark, which plays in a continuous way, and deals with the same subject matter, and tried to kind of immerse you in a world for that time. That's always been the Porcupine Tree way, but we've definitely taken it to the next level."
Of course, Porcupine Tree aren't Wilson's sole means for creative expression. The frontman is also a much sought-after producer who has worked with the likes of Swedish death-metallers (and former Tree tour partners) Opeth, and is currently involved in seven projects. Earlier this month, he released Blackfield II, the sophomore release from Blackfield, a pop-imbued collaboration between himself and Israeli rock superstar Aviv Geffen. The two met back in 2000, when the Tree were gigging in Israel.
"Aviv gave me, the first time I met him, a demo of an instrumental piece he'd written, and I took it home and loved it," Wilson said. "I wrote some vocal parts for it straight away, and the chemistry just kind of clicked, almost from that moment, and we kind of realized we had something special."
Wilson said he needs to be involved with numerous side projects, or else his creative juices would run dry.
"What I need is to be able to express all of the musical interests that I have, and that is a very wide-ranging set of influences," he said. "I listen to and enjoy so many different kinds of music that I think I would feel frustrated if I didn't have the outlet to express the different sides of my musical personality. In some respects, it's a very healthy thing. Blackfield, in a way, has liberated Porcupine Tree to be a little bit more complex and perhaps more pure in the way we approach music. If I tried to shoehorn everything I want to do into one project, I think it would be the most ridiculously, insanely eclectic band. No one would want to listen to it."
Perhaps one of the most-anticipated albums for fans of both the Tree and Opeth has to be Wilson's side-project with Opeth main man Mikael Åkerfeldt, which should surface sometime in 2008, he said.
"We've been talking about this literally since the day we met,"
Wilson explained. "The original idea was to collaborate together on something else, but since then both bands have been becoming more and more successful. We kind of got immersed in our own projects, and we've never really found the time to get together and follow through on what we'd discussed. In the meantime, the rumors have gotten around that we were planning to do something. Realistically, it is going to happen, but it won't happen until next year. We've written some songs, and that's about as far as we've got so far.
"I just hope it can live up to [people's] expectations," he continued. "I think there's always this sense that this whole idea of supergroups is sometimes one that can disappoint, because people always expect it's going to be Opeth plus Porcupine Tree, so it's going to be twice as good as either band on its own. I think it will be something a bit different, and I think it will be something good. I just hope the expectations aren't too enormous."